When you shop for a helmet, you’re bound to see mentions of DOT certification, Snell certification, and if that wasn’t confusing enough, now the ECE certification is in the mix. What do they all mean? We decode them for you.
What Different Standards Are There?
In the U.S., the DOT (Department of Transportation) and Snell certifications are the most common. DOT standards are federally mandated, while Snell certification is optional, and issued by a private non-profit testing organization.
The ECE (Economic Commission for Europe) standard, R 22.05, is the European version of the DOT standard, though its tests are more rigorous. It is recognized by over 50 countries, and by every major racing organization in the world.
Other less common certification schemes are the SHARP rating system in the UK, and CRASH in Australia.
What Does DOT Certification Involve?
The Department of Transportation (DOT) standard is enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA.) In order for a motorcycle helmet to be DOT certified, it must conform to a few minimum requirements, and be able to pass a series of impact tests.
The impact tests are administered placing a “headform” (basically a dummy head equipped with measuring instruments) inside it to measure speed and g-forces as the helmet is dropped onto different surfaces from a pre-determined height. Based on the energy that gets transmitted to the head, the helmet is given a grade of pass or fail. Tests are done twice, to make sure the helmet can withstand multiple impacts in one crash.
Other tests are also done, such as a penetration test to make sure the head isn’t impacted, and the retention system is also tested to make sure the helmet doesn’t slide off in an accident.
DOT Helmet Tests
Helmet is dropped onto a spherical anvil from a height of 1.83m
Helmet is dropped onto a flat anvil from a height of 1.83m
Pointed striker is dropped onto helmet
Weight is applied to retention system (up to 300 pounds of force for 120 seconds)
The DOT standard is sometimes criticized because it works on the honor system; manufacturers declare a helmet to conform to DOT standards themselves, and label it accordingly. Only when the helmet is tested might it lose its certification, and it might already be on the market when it does. However, the penalties for building a failing helmet are very high – up to $5000 per helmet – so there is a strong incentive for manufacturers to do their own testing before helmets are released, which they typically do.
What Does Snell Certification Involve?
In the US, Snell is the superior helmet certification. Snell helmets are tested to a more rigorous standard, as the standard itself is derived from motorcycle racing, where impacts tend to be more severe.
A number of differences exist between Snell and DOT, in both the organizations themselves, and in how the tests are administered. A few of the significant differences are:
The Snell Memorial Foundation is a private non-profit organization; NHTSA is a federal government agency
Snell certification is voluntary for the manufacturers; DOT certification is mandatory
Snell’s standards are more rigorous than DOT standards
Snell does testing of prototypes to aid manufacturers in the production process; DOT applies only to production models
Snell issues a new certification standard every 5 years. The current standard is M2010, which was a significant change over the previous M2005. Snell’s helmet testing is similar to DOT testing, but with additional requirements. They are:
Snell uses 5 different shaped anvils instead of two
Helmets are dropped from multiple heights (all of which are higher than DOT’s)
Snell tests the chinbar along with the dome of the helmet
The visor is also tested, by shooting it with three lead pellets from an air rifle
What Does ECE Certification Involve?
Even though it doesn’t get a lot of attention here in the U.S., the ECE standard motorcycle helmet certification, R22.05, is actually the most widely used in the world; it is recognized by over 50 countries and every major racing organization you can think of.
ECE testing is the most rigorous and most up-to-date. It is in many ways a combination of elements of both DOT and Snell procedures, with a few extras added in. ECE testing involves:
Impact absorption by dropping helmet onto a flat anvil
Testing chin strap buckle for slippage
Chin strap material is tested for tension failure at over 670 lbs. of force
Testing for abrasion resistance
Shell is tested for deformation under weight of nearly 150 lbs.
Visor is tested as an integral part of the helmet
While DOT is done on the honor system and Snell is optional – allowing many helmets to fall through the testing cracks – the ECE standard requires that helmets be tested before the model can hit the market.
To gain ECE certification, a manufacturer must send a batch of 50 production versions of the helmet for independent testing. The testing is done in a third party lab with witnesses from both the manufacturer and the ECE in order to grant certification.
How Much Does Certification Matter In The Real World?
Testing is valuable, no doubt. But for the sake of fairness, lab tests take place in a controlled environment and are very consistent and precise. In the real world, accidents are chaotic and unpredictable.
So a given helmet could perform exceptionally well in tests, but fall behind others in real world, post-crash damage assessments. The reverse could also be true; helmets with a great reputation among riders could be outperformed by others in the testing environment, especially if helmet manufacturers make a point of “building to the standard.”
Which Standard Should I Go With?
This is actually a hotly debated question.
In the U.S., you should go with a helmet that is, at a minimum, DOT approved – that will ensure that your helmet is street legal. You’ll not only have a significant level of protection, but your helmet won’t attract any unwanted attention from the law (which you probably get enough of already!)
The other standards complicate things a bit. Snell certification requires more extensive testing and generally implies a safer helmet. However, because the test is administered differently, there is some controversy as to whether it is really “better” than DOT certification or not.
ECE certification is the most up to date, and the most recognized worldwide. It is more rigorous than DOT testing, and tests additional aspects of a helmets overall robustness (e.g. an abrasion test.)
Because every test is slightly different, and recognized by different governments and racing organizations, there is always some controversy around wich one is “best.”
So while we can’t tell you definitively which one you should go with, we can tell you about what goes into each and to discuss the pros and cons of all of them, so you can make your own decision about which one is best for you.
Remember, no matter what kind of helmet you buy, wearing one is infinitely better than not if a mishap should happen on a ride. We urge you to always wear a certified helmet every time you throw a leg over a bike!