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Are all motorcycle helmets sold actually road legal?

Are all motorcycle helmets sold actually road legal?

We all get the concept of a helmet; it has been around since the dawn of time and the world's museums are full of them. The head is fragile, prominent and very important, and when we are in situations where it can be damaged, we tend to give Mother Nature a helping hand by covering it up.

When the bicycle inevitably led to the motorcycle in the late 1800s, it didn't take long before people wanted to know which was the fastest machine and who was the most skilled rider. The bicycle velodromes and horse racing tracks of the time soon started to fill up with the roar of the motorcycle engine. The early motorcycle manufacturers, the iconic brands of today, responded by making even more powerful and faster machines. Soon, speeds of over 100mph were commonplace - speeds that horse riders and cyclists could only dream of.

With this increased speed came the increased incidence of serious head injury as riders pushed themselves and their machines to the limit. It soon became clear the cloth and leather caps of the time were not really up to the job. The first patented motorcycle helmet was simply leather padding covered by a hard shellac outer. By today's standards, it wasn't much, but it was a start. The first mandatory use of motorcycle helmets was for the notoriously dangerous Isle of Man TT race in 1914 in response to campaigning by British Physician Dr. Eric Gardener, who had been confronted by an increasing number of head injuries among the riders.

The modern helmet

The major problem faced by the early pioneers of helmet design was that in those days, anything that was able to withstand serious impacts, including steel or iron, was also extremely heavy for a human neck to hold up for any length of time. This meant advances were often limited.

Fast forward half a century to the post-World War II period, when we saw rapid advances in material technology, plastics and composites brought on by the needs of the military, along with the new jet and rocket technologies. At last, it became possible to make lightweight but strong helmets.

The rapid post-war rise in motorsport fueled further advances in helmet design that soon trickled down from track riders and racers to the consumer. Today's consumer is faced with a broad range of helmet styles made in a variety of materials such as fiberglass, ABS plastic, kevlar, polycarbonate and carbon fiber.

To bring some clarity to the market, the Department of Transportation (DOT) introduced the DOT-Certification Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for all helmets sold primarily as motorcycle helmets.

The idea was simple: to introduce minimum standards and give the rider confidence that what they had on their heads would work if they ever needed it. This hasn't limited consumer choice as there are still many styles of helmets made from a large range of materials that are DOT approved, such as the lightweight, low-profile helmets from the Microdot range all of which are fully DOT compliant and road legal, like this Twister 2.0.

Twister 2.0.

What are the DOT standards?

Although this is a self-certification system, the Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance carries out tests on a number of helmets each year [1] and any manufacturer found applying the label to sub-standard helmets can expect some hefty fines of up to $16,050,000 and withdrawal of the product from sale. Any member of the public with concerns about a helmet can contact them.

In order to pass, a helmet must have a hard outer shell and a soft padded interior. The tests will include water immersion and measurement to assess how the helmet reacts in a band of temperatures, from lows such as 5° F to 23° F for a minimum of 4 hours to highs of 113° F to 131° F, also for a minimum of 4 hours, to ensure they retain their shape and strength.

They will be dropped on square and round anvils from specified heights and at specific angles to test impacts. Penetration tests are performed by dropping a free-fall striker onto the helmet and striking it at various angles on a number of places around the helmet's surface.

The retention straps of the helmet are tested to ensure they can withstand a 50-pound load for 30 seconds, followed by a 250-pound load for 120 seconds. The strap should not stretch for more than an inch. This is to ensure the helmet stays on the head during an accident. A helmet that flies off in an accident is, after all, no helmet at all.

Peripheral vision is tested on helmets with sides such as these fully DOT-compliant, road-legal German-style helmets to ensure nothing limits a rider's awareness of the road around them.

German-style helmets

Is it possible to buy non-DOT-approved helmets?

While individual state laws on the mandated use of motorcycle helmets can be confusing and are often subject to change, one thing is crystal clear: a helmet cannot be sold as a motorcycle helmet if it doesn't meet DOT-approved standards. There are, of course, so-called "novelty-helmets" on the market, and while they may not be sold specifically as motorcycle helmets, they will often look much like a motorcycle helmet. However, they will not perform like one when you need it. They are fashion accessories and should only be worn as such; no serious biker should take to the road in one.

There is simply no need to compromise as it is quite possible to be stylish and safe with helmets such as the Microdot DOT-approved and fully compliant reversible Beanie helmet.

reversible Beanie helmet

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says that when checking whether a helmet is a novelty helmet, some things to look out for are protrusions from the helmet, such as spikes; a maximum protrusion of two-tenths of an inch is allowed on DOT-approved helmets, excluding visor hinges. If the helmet has no internal padding, this is another red flag, as is a very thin shell in an inexpensive helmet.

DOT-approved helmets will always be labeled as such with a clear sticker stating the manufacturer's name, the model name or number, DOT written horizontally on the label, and FVMSS218 Certified stated clearly. The stickers can be removed after purchase, although some riders leave them on as this may satisfy an officer during a roadside police check that you are road legal.

Whether you are just starting out as a motorcyclist or you are a seasoned rider, DOT-approved helmets are always the way to go.

Resources:

[1] https://static.nhtsa.gov/odi/ctr/9999/TRTR-645994-2019-001.pdf

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