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Just as airbags ensure car safety, helmets are paramount to motorcycle safety. Different standards are used to enforce the safety of helmets and indicate they’re legal and safe. They include DOT, Snell, and ECE certifications, all of which are conducted by different organizations and involve different tests. So, which one has the best safety rating?

The importance of motorcycle safety gear

South African racer Jody Scheckter wears a motorcycle helmet after he won the Monaco Grand Prix in May 1977
Motorcycle helmet | Slim Aarons/Getty Images

Motorcyclists wear varied safety gear, including riding suits and even airbag vests. But helmets are essential.

According to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, “researchers analyzed 3,600 police reports of on-highway motorcycle crashes. This and other research has established that helmets save lives.”

Helmets greatly reduce the number of head injuries, a component

How DOT motorcycle helmets are tested

DOT (Department of Transportation) helmets are mandatory in the United States. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration enforces this standard, and it is overall considered a minimum for any protective motorcycle helmet. The tests involve putting the helmet on a dummy head, which has instruments to measure force and speed.

The first set of tests involves two drop tests. One is on a spherical anvil, and the other is on a flat anvil, both from a height of about two meters. This test is designed to measure the impact force of a crash, determining if the helmet is protective.

Next, there is a penetration test. This ensures the impact will not carry through to the head, rendering the motorcycle helmet ineffective. The test uses a pointed striker to accomplish this, which is dropped from a specific height. If it goes through the helmet, it will fail the test and not receive a DOT certification.

The final test is for the retention system. This ensures the helmet won’t fly off the rider during a crash, which would make wearing the helmet pointless. Force is applied to the helmet for two minutes, and if the helmet stays on, it passes this portion of the test.

Though the DOT certification is widely used, it has received criticism. Companies must label the DOT certification themselves, meaning they could lie about whether the helmet was tested. If the helmet undergoes testing from then on, consumers likely would have bought it already and used the potentially faulty helmets while riding.

That said, if a company lied, it would face a hefty fine of thousands of dollars per helmet. This consequence means most manufacturers are less motivated to lie about passing helmets. 

ECE motorcycle helmets are considered the safest

The ECE is less widely used in the States because the Economic Commission issues it for Europe. However, according to Bike Bandit, it’s “actually the most widely used in the world; it is recognized by over 50 countries and every major racing organization you can think of.”

Of all three certifications, it goes the most in-depth in testing a motorcycle helmet’s safety.

The drop test, as with DOT and Snell certifications, is still included. However, it is only on a flat anvil, not anvils of different shapes. It also doesn’t include a penetration test. Though it’s debated whether certifications reflect real-world motorcycling conditions anyway, these two factors could indicate a potential flaw.

Other than this, though, the ECE tests far more than the other two certifications combined. This includes testing the chin strap buckle, the chin strap’s tension failure, the helmet’s abrasion resistance, the visor, and the shell deformation. For this reason, ECE helmets are largely considered to be the safer standard over DOT or Snell.

In addition, the ECE also tests 50 helmets, which mitigates the risk of defective helmets slipping through. Also, unlike the DOT standard, manufacturers cannot self-certify. Instead, witnesses from the manufacturer and ECE must testify the helmets passed the tests.

What are Snell motorcycle helmets?

The Snell standard is also widely used in the United States. The nonprofit Snell Memorial Foundation enforces this standard, unlike the DOT standard, which the U.S. government enforces. As a result, the certification isn’t required, but it may indicate a safer motorcycle helmet than just the DOT. In addition, Snell tests prototype helmets rather than just the final product, meaning manufacturers can make tweaks to the final helmets based on the results they receive.

The tests are similar to the DOT standard, but they go into more detail. Rather than using two anvils, Snell uses five. The drop heights are also higher, and the organization tests not only the top part of the helmet but also the chin bar near the bottom. Snell’s testing also involves shooting the visor with an air rifle, which the DOT does not.


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