How are motorcycle helmets tested for their safety metrics?
A motorcycle helmet is undoubtedly the primary piece of safety wear for any motorcycle rider. Broadly speaking, it is the only piece of safety gear that is mandated for use here and across many parts of the world. Other safety gear, such as padded suits, neck bracing, and high-visibility wear, all have their place; in certain environments or track racing conditions, they are essential. However, the reasons for the widespread use of helmet mandates are clear.
As motorcycling became more affordable and more popular in the early part of the 20th century, it became increasingly obvious that something would need to be done about the rise in motorcycle accidents and head injuries in particular. The most common cause of death in motorcycle accidents is head injury and brain trauma, while the most common injury is to the legs and pelvis. As traumatic as leg and pelvis injuries can be, we are more likely to recover from them than from a head injury.
Beyond track racing, the first mandated use of motorcycle helmets was in the U.S. Army in 1941. The first country to adopt nationwide helmet mandates was Australia in 1961, which saw the incidence of head injuries fall dramatically after that. Fast forward to today, and the modern rider is faced with many different styles of helmets made with many different high-grade materials. So how do we know what is safe, and how exactly are they tested?
While there is no worldwide standard set for motorcycle helmets, each country or jurisdiction tends to come up with its own standards and testing procedures. Here in America, there is DOT (Department of Transport) Approval FMVSS 218 , while Europe has the ECE 22.05 , which is the closest we get to an international standard as it is recognized in 50 countries worldwide, including Britain and Australia.
The European standard is generally regarded as the highest in terms of safety rating and rigorous testing procedures across a number of different-sized helmets, and the ECE will probably lead the way going forward. While DOT approval is self-certified with random yearly testing, the ECE tests feature throughout the production process before the helmet comes to market and afterward during its sales period.
In addition, there are a few non-governmental testing organizations dedicated to improving helmet safety, such as the ACU , which concerns itself mostly with racing helmets, as well as Sharp in the UK and Snell here in the U.S. The Snell memorial foundation was set up in honor of Peter Snell, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1957. Snell campaigns for improved helmet safety and works alongside many helmet manufacturers to try to improve on existing government standards.
Across all of these standards, the main areas of testing are penetration, impact, abrasion and strap retention. Helmets must have a hard outer shell and a padded inner, and there must be no protrusions more than two-tenths of an inch from the surface. Tests will not take into account the material the helmet is made of, but they must all meet the required standard.
The impact testing will be carried out by dropping the helmets on anvils or curbstones, usually one that is rounded and one with an edge or flat, in order to recreate possible real-life collision situations. One criticism of the European ECE standards is that they perform the impact tests at the same points, while the DOT tests are carried out at random points, with two strikes at the same point. The ECE testing could allow helmet manufacturers to bulk out their helmets at points they know will be tested. On the other hand, the ECE tests chin bars for impact resistance, which the DOT test does not address.
The impact will be calculated in terms of gravitational force, or G-force, with anything above 300G known to cause fatal head injuries. Under DOT testing, anything above this will fail the helmet, while under ECE testing, anything above 275G will mean failure. The Snell test further reduces this to 260G.
The DOT penetration test is carried out by dropping a 6-pound, 10-ounce pointed striker from a height of 118 inches onto the helmet. This is done at various points, and any penetration will mean the helmet fails.
Next is the strap retention test. Straps are tested by using a 50-pound weight followed by a 300-pound weight. The strap should not break or stretch more than 1 inch, as either will result in failure for the helmet.
Helmets are also subjected to water immersion tests and tested in a range of temperature bands from lows such as 5° F to 23° F for a minimum of 4 hours to highs of 113° F to and including 131° F for a minimum of 4 hours to ensure they keep their shape and strength. This aims to check how a helmet will perform in all climatic and environmental situations.
Helmets with visors are further tested for peripheral vision. The Snell tests take into account two extra tests. First, there is chin bar distortion testing by dropping 10-pound weights directly on the chin bar and checking if it distorts, cracks or breaks in any way. Second, helmet retention testing is carried out by applying 9 pounds of force at angles that recreate real-life accidents to see if the helmet remains on the head.
All helmets sold specifically as motorcycle helmets in the U.S. must have DOT certification. It can be argued that the DOT self-certification system relies too heavily on the honesty of the manufacturers and helmets manufactured outside of the U.S. are relying similarly on the honesty of the importers, trusting them to test their products before sale to ensure they meet the required standards.
In their random tests during 2019, for example, 3 out of 16 helmets tested failed. It is not known how many of the 3 failed helmets were sold before they were pulled from the market. The number of helmets that undergo DOT tests varies from year to year. While heavy fines are in place to discourage the sale of sub-standard helmets - up to $16,050,000 for repeat offenses - it is wise to be cautious and stick with reputable DOT-approved helmet manufacturers such as those offered by Microdot, icluding this Blister 180. The ECE certification process takes a more hands-on approach than the more lenient DOT system.
While it is true that both testing methods have their pros and cons, a rider should never take to the open road in an uncertified helmet.