Greg is an expert and enthusiast at POWERSPORTiD on all things motorized including cars, ATVs and boats.
There are a wide variety of helmet options available on the market for dirt bikes, ATVs and four-wheelers. And for good reason – helmets must be catered to fit the vehicle, rider’s style and safety needs. Today’s helmets have come a long way from the early days of stiff, all-leather construction and non-shock absorbent shells. Modern helmets come with all sorts of customization and accessory options but even the most basic ones undergo rigorous tests and must adhere to safety requirements. This is why, when shopping for helmets today, you’ll likely encounter an alphabet soup of safety certifications – many helmets meet several certifications. Let’s unpack what the most common designations are and how helmets are tested to meet these requirements to help riders better understand what to look for depending on their riding style, location and vehicle.
Per federal law, all helmets sold in the United States must meet standards put forth by the Department of Transportation (DOT). For this reason, if you’re shopping from U.S. retailers, you’ll see the DOT certification on every type of helmet for off-roading and powersports – from open-face to full-face models. U.S. riders should never consider a helmet that doesn’t have DOT certification, at minimum.
DOT testing is the standard, but what do the tests entail? In order to receive DOT certification, a helmet must pass various impact and penetration tests as well as field of vision and retention strap tests. Data from these tests is typically tracked on a dummy head, referred to as a “headform,” loaded with sensors capable of measuring the speed of acceleration and deceleration on impact. During a DOT test, technicians can choose where on the helmet to deliver test blows and the comprehensive results are assessed to determine how much force a particular helmet can safely withstand.
Snell tests emerged from sad beginnings. An inadequate helmet was to blame for the 1956 fatal crash of racecar driver Pete Snell. Following this tragedy, the Snell Foundation was formed and became committed to pioneering work in the helmet safety space. Snell certifications aren’t required by law, but they signify a more comprehensive and high level of protection. The tests include all of the below steps, many of which have been adopted by other testing bodies over the years:
- Roll off test – checking that a helmet can stay secure on a headform during a knock or drop.
- Dynamic retention test – assessing the helmet’s ability to take on stress with a stretch test. Helmets that sustain any cracks or significant deformations fail this test.
- Impact test – gauging the helmet’s ability to sustain forceful blows delivered by several anvils of varying size and sharpness.
- Face shield penetration test – testing how a helmet’s visor will perform when it comes into contact with hard or fast-flying objects.
- Shell penetration test – stress testing the helmet to ensure that a pointed weight doesn’t penetrate the outer shell or come into contact with the headform.
- Chin bar test – checking the strength of movable or fixed chin bars on select helmets, to assess their ability to withstand impact without cracks or significant deformation.
Moving outside the U.S., the Economic Commission of Europe (ECE) issues certifications for helmet safety which are required in more that 50 countries. When compared to Snell and DOT tests, European tests are less-strict. This is likely due to lower speed limits in these countries and regions and, by extension, lower accident speeds. To receive an ECE certification, helmets are required to meet impact, resistance, rigidity, friction and chin strap strength standards.
The British government performs a Safety Helmet Assessment and Rating Program (SHARP) test on helmets that have already been granted an ECE certification. SHARP tests go beyond the ECE qualifications and include impacts to more spots on the helmet delivered at a wider variety of velocities. Another distinguishing feature of SHARP is the graduated rating system. SHARP uses test data to issue a rating out of five stars, rather than assess helmets on a pass or fail basis. They also use color-coded ratings to reference specific areas on the helmet that were tested.
Even though SHARP tests are more comprehensive than ECE, it’s important to keep in mind that these test standards are still based on European highway speeds and might not be as relevant or appropriate for U.S. riders.
Safety is of the utmost importance whenever you’re shopping for a new helmet. While many helmets can be upgraded or accessorized for added protection and comfort, it’s helpful to start with a working knowledge of the types of certifications you’ll encounter. In addition to shopping by style and comfort, recognizing these ratings and how helmets are tested to earn them will allow you to confidently select the right helmet for your next adventure!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.