On one of my first off-road excursions on my new-to-me KLR 650, I found myself in over my head on a slippery, rocky trail. I lost my balance, tipped over, saw the rock rushing toward my face, and braced for impact. It was a solid whack, but the only visible damage was a few new scratches on my modular helmet. The chin bar had done its job and protected my face from a broken jaw and massive rearranging. As strong as it is, though, it does not have the Snell Memorial Foundation's seal of approval. In fact, almost no modular helmets do. Why is that? I exchanged some emails with Edward B. Becker, Executive Director of the Snell Memorial Foundation, to find out.
When it comes to helmet safety, Snell is the final word in the US. Racing organizations, whose riders are arguably the most likely to actually put their helmets to the ultimate test, require that Snell certification. It has long been considered the gold standard of helmet certification, far above the meager DOT standards required for legality. Snell certifies both full-face and open-face helmets, but almost no modular helmets meet Snell's standards, despite their safety advantages above the fully exposed open-face.
"We have tested modular helmets and even certified a few of them in the past," said Becker. Indeed, Snell did approve the LS2 FF394 Epic to its M2010 standards.
"However, as much as we like the convenience of modular headgear," Becker continues, "we’re not willing to give up any protective performance to get it. So when a helmet maker submits a modular helmet for Snell certification, we hold it to all the requirements we set for standard full-face headgear and also require that the chin bar element remain locked in place for the first three impacts in our standard impact testing. Our thinking is that riders who opt for modular helmets instead of open face do so because they want protection for the lower face, jaw and teeth. We want some reasonable assurance that they will get that protection."
In other words, Snell expects a modular helmet to perform just as well as a full-face helmet, despite being able to open the front. It is one thing to design a helmet that meets these standards with a chin bar fully integrated into it. It is much more difficult to design one that opens yet still meets the same standard as rigid helmets.
Becker says, "We’ve been inviting companies to submit modular helmets for Snell certification since the late 1990s but only a few companies have actually taken up the challenge and, so far, no one has gotten a complete Snell certified model line set up in sizes S through XL." Although LS2 made a big deal out of the FF394 Epic being the first M2010 approved helmet, it did not recertify for M2015, and the model is no longer available.
How, then, does Snell justify its certification of open-face helmets, which have no chin protection whatsoever, while not certifying many modular helmets? For Snell, it's all about the brain.
"In the 1960s, there were hardly any full-face models available and when they did come about, there was a lot of concern about neck injury," said Becker. "Professor Harry Hurt’s study in the late 1970s laid a lot of that to rest and also nailed down the risk reductions for lower face and jaw injuries. Still, it wasn’t till Snell’s 1980 standard that full-face helmets were tested for chin bar performance. Up until then, no distinction was made between the two configurations and full-face headgear were held to the same requirements as open-face. The Snell 1980 standard included a test for the chin bars of full-face helmets. Essentially, if the helmet had a chin bar, Snell tested it for rigidity. Open face helmets weren’t subjected to this requirement."
So what about my situation, where the helmet worked as intended but isn't Snell-certified? Should Nolan consider submitting this model for Snell certification? "Unless a helmet maker sets out to design a helmet for Snell certification, there’s almost zero chance that it will meet our requirements," says Becker. "Snell helmets don’t happen by accident. Even if we were to bring in samples of every current non-Snell certified modular helmet in for testing, it’s almost certain none of them would pass."
How can we get more Snell-certified helmets out there on the market, then? "The best advice I can give you is to shoot an email to the makers of your favorite brands asking them to develop a modular helmet for our certification," said Becker. "And, until then, if no Snell certified helmet meets your needs, by all means, wear a good DOT modular from a reputable company. DOT is just about where Snell was in 1968. A good DOT helmet might still save your friends and family a lot of grief." Becker is right—it saved me from a rearranged face on the trail. I'd still feel better wearing a modular helmet that had the Snell seal of approval, though.
And before you mention it in the comments, yes, after that faceplant I should replace my helmet. It shows no visual signs of damage besides a few scratches, but there's no easy way of knowing how much the impact-absorbing material inside has been affected.