A crash helmet is probably the most important accessory from a passive safety perspective on a two-wheeler. Active safety is equally important, and well-engineered, modern motorcycles with rider aids such as ABS and traction control go a long way in enhancing the safety net for the rider. In the unfortunate case of an accident, however, your safety gear is the only barrier between you and physical harm. In the unfortunate event of a crash, a helmet, covering the all-important part of your body, the head, is the single most important safety equipment protecting the rider. Now, to ensure that the helmets sold in certain countries and continents comply with some minimum quality and safety requirements, there are some technical certifications that these helmets have to carry. As of today, there are three helmet safety standards in the world which are very prevalent. The first one is the U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation) certification. Every helmet to be used on the road in the United States needs to carry this certification. The ECE (the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) standard is a certification for most of the European countries, and is recognized by well over 50 countries, as well as by most racing organizations in the world. In addition to these two government regulated certifications, there is also the Snell certification, which is optional, and issued by the Snell Memorial Foundation – a private non-profit testing organization. You also have the SHARP certification in the UK, while for Australia there is the CRASH certification system. Since the last two certifications aren’t as popular as the former three, in this article, we will restrict our discussion only to what DOT, ECE and Snell helmet certifications entail. We will discuss in detail the tests that the helmets vying for these certifications have to undergo. We’ll also broadly discuss as to what are the differences in the testing methodology adopted by DOT, ECE and Snell helmet certifications. Let’s get going then!
To start with, while all three certifications are somewhat different in terms of their test methodology, there are many similarities too. The test helmets, for example, while being crash tested are often strapped on to a head form in all three tests. These head forms are essentially a dummy head, somewhat like the crash test dummies used in crash testing for cars. The shape of these head forms is sometimes different for different testing organizations, though in all cases, they are equipped with scientific instruments to precisely measure the damage sustained upon impact.
DOT Helmet Certification
The Department of Transportation (DOT) standard is specific to the United Nations of America. It is overlooked and enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the country, although the certification is widely accepted worldwide as a seal of trust for helmet safety. The helmets conforming to the DOT standards should meet specific quality requirements from a manufacturing standpoint, and should also pass certain crash, penetration and retention system tests.
The test helmets contending to achieve the DOT certification are made to drop on two different varieties of surfaces, or anvils, from a pre-set height. The resultant G-force, upon crash, simulates a crash scenario, and the impact is measured using scientific tools. Under DOT, the crash test is conducted twice on every test helmet to simulate multiple impacts during a single crash. In addition to a crash test, a penetration test is also conducted using a hard, pointed object to ensure that sharp objects don’t manage to pierce through the shell of the helmet. In addition, the straps of the helmet are tested for their strength and ability to hold the helmet in place during a collision. After all, if a helmet flies off during a crash, no amount of strength in its shell would be of any use to the rider. The helmets carrying DOT certification should also allow a peripheral vision not less than 105 degrees from the middle of the helmet. Any projections on the surface of the helmet cannot be more than 5mm.
Talking specifically about the DOT test procedure, the test helmet is dropped from a fixed height of 1.83 meters, to generate a G-force equivalent of 400G, and made to crash upon flat as well as spherical anvils. For the penetration test, a pointed striker is dropped onto the helmet to test if it manages to pierce through the shell and the EPS liner. If the striker makes any contact with the head form or causes any other damage to it, the helmet fails the test. The retention system test puts the helmet’s retention straps under stress. The load on the straps starts at 22.7kg, is applied for 30 seconds and is progressively increased to 136 kg for 120 seconds. The retention system should not displace more than a specified limit to pass the test.
An important aspect of the DOT certification, and something for which it is often criticized as well, is that a helmet manufacturer doesn’t need to get a DOT Certification from the NHTSA in order to put the helmets on sale in the market. The system works on the principle of self-certification, where the manufacturers test their helmets by themselves, and label them as DOT certified without any interference or monitoring by the government agency. Helmets on sale in the market are then randomly picked by the NHTSA and tested for their compliance with DOT standards. If a helmet on sale fails the DOT test, the entire batch has to be removed from the market. The penalties can be as high as US$ 5000 for every defective helmet. Since the penalties are so high, legitimate helmet manufacturers do test their helmets before releasing them in the market with DOT certification. A loophole, however, with this system is that if a manufacturer sells a defective model without proper testing, the helmets in the market with the certification pose a risk to those wearing them. The buyers of such helmets are unsafe until the flaw with the helmet is discovered and rectified.
ECE Helmet Certification
Deriving its name from the United Nations ‘Economic Commission of Europe’, the ECE helmet safety standard is the most prevalent worldwide. Over 50 countries require the helmets sold in their region to carry this certification. Not just that, the ECE certification is approved for almost all competitive motorsport events overlooked by bodies such as AMA, WERA, FIM, CCS, Formula USA, MotoGP and many more. While the basic methodology for testing helmets under ECE guidelines is somewhat similar to that of DOT, it is often, arguably, considered more stringent than its American counterpart. It’s acceptability in renowned motorsport is also a reason why a lot of helmet buyers prefer it over DOT.
A major difference between DOT and ECE certification is that while DOT simulates two impacts in the same location on the helmet, ECE does this only once. However, it is generally accepted that a DOT certified helmet would pass the ECE test, and vice versa. Having said that, ECE testing is arguably considered the most up-to-date and extensive by many. A factor that probably adds to its perceived ‘additional’ credibility is the additional tests that the ECE certified helmets undergo to win the certification. In addition to the tests that we mentioned above as a part of the DOT regulation, an ECE certified helmet also has to undergo testing for abrasion resistance. The chin strap material is tested for slippage, and the retention system also has to undergo a higher load, which is over 300 kg. The shell of the helmet under ECE is tested for deformation under a weight of 68 kg, and the visor is treated as an integral part of the helmet under these regulations.
Another major difference between the two certification systems is that unlike DOT, for ECE, every helmet model should be properly tested and issued the certificate ‘before’ it goes on sale in the market. To facilitate this, a manufacture has to provide 50 production spec helmets for the purpose of testing. A third party agency conducts the testing in line with the ECE guidelines with representatives from both parties present to ensure a fair assessment.
Snell Helmet Certification
Unlike ECE and DOT, which are government bodies for helmet certification, the Snell Memorial Foundation is a private, non-profit, independent organization which works towards enhancing rider or driver safety by facilitating creation and testing of better, safer helmets. The Snell Certification is named after William “Pete” Snell, a famous race car driver who died after a crash owing to head injuries. Pete was wearing a helmet that complied with the safety norms of that time, though it wasn’t enough to save his life. Snell specifications for helmet safety are updated every five years. The most recent ones are Snell, M2015 which are very similar to the M2010 guidelines.
Generally speaking, Snell is supposed to be a superior helmet safety specification, as the helmets receiving the certification have to undergo a wider range of tests, which are considered more rigorous, if not more effective in the case of a crash. Since Snell is a non-profit organization, the certification is voluntary for helmet makers, unlike DOT or ECE, which are mandatory. Another big difference in the functioning of the Snell Memorial Foundation is that it not only tests helmets post production, but also helps manufacturers with testing during the design and prototyping process to create better, safer helmets.
In order to get the Snell certification, a helmet needs to undergo a whole bunch of additional tests. To start with, unlike DOT and ECE which use two shapes of anvils for impact testing, Snell uses 5 different shaped anvils. Also, the helmets are dropped from multiple heights while being tested for Snell certification, all of which are higher than DOT and ECE drop heights. In addition to all the other tests for impact, penetration and retention, Snell also tests helmets for the strength and integrity of the chin-bar along with the dome. Finally, the visor of a helmet for Snell certification is tested for its strength and resistance to debris breaking through by shooting it with three lead pellets from an air rifle.
Now that you know the range of tests that the helmets getting these certifications undergo, the next question you probably have on your mind is, which of the three is the best? Well, that’s a hotly debated question worldwide, with no irrefutable evidence to support any one certification over the other two. It is, thus, beyond the scope of this piece to endorse one certification over the others. What we can tell you, however, is that all three of these certifications are very stringent and it’s always advisable that you wear a helmet complying with one of these three standards.
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