What Are Motorcycle Helmet Safety Ratings? ECE, DOT, SNELL

How much do you know about safety ratings for motorcycle helmets? In most countries, a helmet must have at least one safety certification for it to be legal. Those may be different from country to country which is precisely why we have as many.

Maybe you’ve heard that some models are DOT approved or have an ECE or SNELL certification. Do you know what those mean?

While you should only get a helmet that has at least one of these, you’re probably wondering which one is the best.

Continue reading to learn all about these certifications, the companies that issue them as well as how each of them tests the helmets.

Brief History of Ratings

Helmet safety is a significant subject that’s quite important today. Still, when you look back at the history of the matter, you realize that things weren’t always like that. While people did wear them for most of the time, they weren’t as durable and protective.

Today, you have many shapes, styles, materials, and sizes to choose from, but only a century ago, people had significantly less to work with.

The first models were made of leather, and they weren’t the most effective in high-impact accidents. One event in 1935 changed history, and it was the of T.E. Lawrence. He was a writer and an army officer who was later treated by a neurosurgeon named Sir Hugh Cairns.

The neurosurgeon studied the effects of head trauma during the crash, and as a result, the first helmets were made. It looked and performed a lot different than those we know today due to the significant difference in the materials and manufacturing process.

His was an innovative idea, but still, the lid only protected from penetration injuries. It was a great start, but it was still not enough. Later, Herman Roth patented a protective helmet with an interior absorbing liner that we know today.

The new model had an inner layer of a non-resilient material, hard outer shell, a visor, and even a chin strap. It became a standard in the 1950s.

Then another significant event took place and changed everything. In 1956, a car race driver Pete Snell was killed in a crash wearing a helmet similar to those designed by Herman Roth. Pete’s family then started the SNELL Memorial Foundation in 1957 in his memory.

In the Snell Memorial Foundation, a group of engineers, scientists and other smart brains established methods of safety testing.

That’s the first of many foundations that test helmets today. Later on, the Department of Transportation started working in the United States of America in 1967 that was then followed by several other testing bodies.

Rating Types

As we mentioned, there are three most crucial safety certifications, and those are obtained from the US Department of Transportation, SNELL Memorial Foundation and Economic Commission for Europe.

The three institutions are reliable but quite different in their ways of testing products. While many people don’t care which certification the helmet has as long as it has some, it’s still important to know what each of them means.

In the section below, we’ll discuss each of the ratings, so you have a clear insight into the safety level they provide. It’s only a brief overview, as we’ll go more in depth later.

retro photo of a man sitting on his bike

DOT

DOT is a standard of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Their rating in effect is federal standard FMVSS 218, and it’s the most commonly found rating in the United States. Any model that has their sticker should meet their precise standards. 

ECE

ECE stands for Economic Commission for Europe. It’s a multinational standard found in more than 50 countries in Europe. You can find some models in the USA as well, but there, the ECE standard isn’t required by law. 

Any helmet with their sticker has to meet the current ECE 22.05 standard.

SNELL

It’s a standard by the Snell Memorial Foundation that’s not required by law in any country. The testing procedure is voluntary and only required by some race bodies. Their current standard is SA2015 for race and SNELL M2015 for street models. It’s considered to be one of the most reliable and appreciated standards in Europe.

How is Safety Tested?

Each of these officials and foundations uses their own methods of testing that aren’t that different from one another. Some are easier to pass while others are quite rigorous and tough, but for the most part, they’re similar.

As a rider, you probably ride at different speeds all the time. More speed, of course, means more energy and higher impact in case of a crash. In some cases, you don’t even have to go at high speeds for the impact to be tragic.

The bodies mentioned above use quite similar methods to test how a helmet manages energy. They all use a headform that’s a solid, head-shaped device with tiny sensors that measure acceleration. The device is placed inside the helmet that then goes into a jig and is dropped at a specific rate.

This headform then records the impact energy allowing the officials to know how well the particular model can protect the head inside. As we said, most testing bodies use similar methods with only a few differences.

However, you should keep in mind that this type of testing is unlike the automotive crash test. None of the testing bodies use actual dummies or simulate crashes.

Car crashes are quite predictable so simulating them is rather simple. On the other hand, motorcycle crashes are far more complex. For this reason, there’s no practical way of replicating the variables such as environment, machine position, contact surfaces, objects, other vehicles, etc.

That’s why they test the ability of the motorcycle helmet to manage impact energies. The gathered info is then used to determine the relative safety level of the model.

Different anvil shapes are used to focus the energy of the strike and in most cases, striking twice on the same area tests the material resilience.

Hemi or edge anvil is what increases the energy in the strike. These have a tiny surface area that increases the force by up to 80% per square inch.

Still, keep in mind that impact protection isn’t the only factor you have to consider. It’s probably the first thing that comes to mind, but definitely not the only one that determines how secure the helmet is.

Factors like visibility through the shield, penetration protection, chin strap retention, and overall ease of use are just a few of many that determine the safety. It also has to be easy to remove in case of an emergency, so that’s another thing that’s often tested.

These are only a few tests that these testing bodies use to determine safety. However, all foundations, departments and official bodies have their own rules and standards which is why their methods might be similar in some ways and different in others.

As we said, some certifications are easier to obtain than others, and some are more appreciated in certain states and areas of the world. These should be considered only along with other safety features and general fitment of the helmet you have in mind.

two cherful women are posing with a helmets

The Safety Standards

Each of the testing bodies issues a particular certification after the helmet has met and exceeded their standard. That scheme of tests and different procedures is based on a similar idea, although there are some variations depending on the particular testing body. 

DOT FMVSS 218

As we mentioned, this is the most commonly found standard of safety. It’s considered quite basic, and there are split opinions about its reliability.

DOT has strict requirements that each model has to meet in order to get the certification. What they check is the field of vision, retention system, penetration resistance, and labeling.

However, the general population doesn’t think highly of the standard because the testing isn’t actually conducted by the Department of Transportation.

They do issue the certification, but independent contractors are the ones doing the actual testing. In most cases, the process is well documented and recorded.

People feel a bit odd about the certification because it’s someone else randomly testing helmets instead of the issuing body. Weirdly enough, officials think that the manufacturers will stay honest because there’s a chance they could get caught by random sampling.

In most cases, manufacturers test their own product which is often viewed as unreliable and questionable. They don’t subject each model to a test but instead rely on random sampling to detect any flaws and problems with the design.

Still, don’t reject the idea just yet. Any rating is better than no rating, so it’s okay if you have a helmet with a DOT sticker. These are well-qualified to keep you safe in case of a crash. Although there’s no passing or failing the tests, these are still somewhat secure.

ECE 22.05

The ECE 22.05 isn’t as common as the current DOT standard. It’s younger and a bit more comprehensive than the one issued by the Department of Transpiration. 

The main difference is that this standard tests the safety features that can actually help avoid an accident altogether. What they test is the optical quality of the face shield and other safety features that aren’t related to impact.

Another difference is that in this case, it’s not the manufacturer that tests its own helmet. It’s an independent lab that conducts all the procedures a helmet has to pass before it gets an ECE sticker.

The key influence on how ECE does their testing is the average motorcycle crash speed. In Europe, this speed is a lot lower than in the States, so ECE uses a smooth anvil otherwise known as curbstone. 

Curbstone delivers much lower energy blow than the hemi anvil we mentioned earlier. Plus, it’s a single blow, so the entire procedure is considered low-energy. 

Another downside is that ECE strikes the helmet at fixed points which means some manufactures could play the system by improving protection in those particular areas. The difference is in the fact that DOT and SNELL strike all areas that are within range so there’s no way to predict where that could be.

European BSI 6658-85 Type A

If you live anywhere in Europe, you’ve probably met with the safety standard. It’s a second standard used in Europe that comes after the more popular Snell. Their testing scheme is somewhat similar, but the certification isn’t as commonly found.

BSI tests helmets and their chin straps, slippage, abrasion, retention, and much of the things seen on the ECE testing.

Although it’s more similar to Snell, its passing values might vary.  That’s probably the reason why people still like Snell over BSI. However, it’s a reliable testing scheme, and the standard is trusted by many people all over the world. 

product image of motorcycle helmet

SNELL M2015

We’ve mentioned Snell many times already, but let’s go a little more into depth. The first thing you should know is that this is probably the most favorite safety standard.

They use an edge anvil that’s known as the most aggressive profile. It allows only 275g maximum energy transfer after both strikes.

Their testing is designed with racetrack safety requirements in mind, so it’s probably the most rigorous out there. Aside from impact resistance, they also test the stability of the helmet and how easy it is to take off in an emergency.

Their procedures stand out because of how much control the helmet technical has during the entire process. The person in charge searches and targets the weakest points. They’ll also strike in multiple areas until they determine the helmet’s ability to manage energy.

Another great thing is that they test the inside of the helmet as well. What Snell does is known as helmet autopsy where they examine and test the EPS liner and all other interior components. Interestingly, no one else does this.

On the other hand, some people are displeased with how Snell promotes EPS liners that are considered too hard. They claimed the liners are so stiff that they transfer even more force at low energy impact. While the argument does sound logical, it didn’t hold for too long.

Snell uses flat, hemi and edge anvil shapes in their testing. The edge one is the most extreme and has the highest energy, but the flat anvil is the same as the one used by the DOT and ECE.

If the lining really were too stiff to be secure, you would get more than 275g energy transfer it allows when tested with a flat anvil. In this case, the helmet would fail the test.

SHARP

Sharp Helmet Safety Scheme is a newcomer in the industry and the first one to step aside from the pass/fail certification system.

They test each model by using several impact points and energy levels. Once they do that, they use the star rating to indicate the helmet’s ability to manage energy.

One of the main differences between Sharp and DOT, ECE, and Snell is in that fact that the other three are stand-alone certifications. Sharp is an impact rating enhancement of the ECE 22.05 standard.

Because of that, Sharp only tests those helmets that have obtained ECE certification. In essence, they take helmets that are already proven as safe by the ECE and provide some additional information to that claim.

The entire idea might sound a bit weird, but it’s actually quite helpful when you can’t decide between a few ECE certified models. They use a similar method but add a higher and lower velocity strike to the scheme. By using European crash data, Sharp calculates a color-coded rating for each area of the helmet.

Still, many people feel quite differently about Sharp and the reliability of their testing. While some praise them for their accurate methods and color-coded rating, others aren’t as impressed.

Some people feel that the star rating isn’t precise enough to determine something as complex as the safety of a helmet. They also argue that color-coded ratings don’t take into account the variability of a crash.

It’s entirely up to you to choose a side in this story. In most cases, it’s best to stay objective and remember that these helmets are already certified as safe by the ECE.

This type of testing is only for the European market. Helmets tested by the DOT are usually a lot different than those tested by Sharp.

product image of the scorpion open face helmet

Is There a Superior Standard?

Picking the best out of these is somewhat impossible. They’re different and provide different information on if and how safe is the helmet.

Choosing the best is mostly a matter of your personal opinion. Because of the difference in which these bodies test each model, some certifications are more suitable for certain situations. However, there’s no way in which you could predict a potential accident.

The helmet certified by ECE will probably protect you in a low-speed fender bender. On the other hand, a Snell certified model might protect you better if you tumble on a freeway. Those approved by DOT will do fine in some low-impact bumps.

We say it’s a matter of your opinion and preferences because many other factors go into choosing a helmet. You also have to look into the comfort, finish, ease of use, fit, and the entire set of features to determine if the helmet is for you or not.

Features like light weight, low road noise, and proper ventilation reduce the chances of an accident in the first place.

All testing bodies use fitting head forms in all their tests. This is crucial because only a well-fitted helmet can actually protect you during impact. Anything too big or too small is as good as nothing.

You should also consider whether you live in the USA or Europe. As we mentioned, Europe has a lower average crash speed so helmets tested by European bodies might not be as effective in the United States.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Important is the Right Fit?

The first thing you should remember is that each model has a different fit. Some brands fit better on oval heads, while others are better for round ones. Still, these details are usually stated by the manufacturer so you right ahead whether it will fit or not.

The best way to buy a helmet is to try it on. Even if you want to buy online, you should go to the store that holds that particular model too if and how it fits. a

In most cases, sizing varies so don’t expect a certain size to be the same in all brands. Again, trying all of them on would be the best way to get the size right. If not, use the charts provided by the brand.

Whatever you do, make sure your helmet fits you perfectly. It has to fit the shape of your head, and it has to be your size. If it’s too small, you probably won’t wear it for long before it starts giving you headaches. If it’s too big, it serves no purpose at all.

You want only the one that fits you perfectly and has a chin strap that holds everything together. If you’re shopping online, try it as soon as it arrives, so you have enough time to replace it if it doesn’t fit well.

Types is also important. Find out more about full face and modular models.

Conclusion

Safety always comes first, and it’s a matter you should think about carefully and in detail. For this, you can rely on one of the standards we discussed.

It’s easy to see how these confuse people, but hopefully, we were able to shed some light on the topic. From this point on, it’s up to you to consider each one of these and use your best judgment in determining which one is the best.

Think about all the other safety features, the fit, as well as the general feel of your helmet to figure out if it’s the best model for you. Make sure it has at least one of these certifications just so you’re sure someone tested its safety levels. 

Additional Resources:

The team at Road Racerz aims to be a source of knowledge for all riders, whether they are beginners, intermediate, or have been riding for 20+ years. We want everyone to enjoy safer rides and have access to rider-specific content to get the most out of every mile.