A motorcycle helmet is the only piece of safety equipment you legally have to wear. It’s the most important motorcycling purchase you’ll make.
As an essential piece of equipment, choosing a lid that has the best level of protection and fit is imperative.
So how do you know which motorcycle helmet has the best level of protection? By choosing one that has not only passed crash helmet safety tests but also one that fits you properly.
For a motorcycle helmet to be legal in the UK, it has to have met the government’s required British safety standards. This is most commonly the ECE 22.05 regulation but if a helmet carries the BSI Kitemark it is also suitable.
Around the world, there are many different safety standards; the nationally recognised standards include ECE 22.05 within Europe and DOT in the US. Other certifications include SHARP and SNELL. It won’t come as a surprise to you that Europe is widely recognised as leading the way in helmet safety standards.
Not sure what each helmet standard really means? Our complete guide explains what those stickers on the back of your helmet signify. Below we’ve written a simple summary of the testing process each requirement puts a helmet through, so you can make a better decision and keep your noggin protected.
ECE 22.05 is a safety standard for helmets used in around 50 countries, including as far afield as Australia. Set by the Economic Commission for Europe, these safety standards ensure manufacturers make quality safety gear resulting in less critical injuries. As a rider, buying a crash helmet with this certification means you can be confident it will protect you.
ECE 22.05 Testing
So what does the testing involve? ECE tests for several outcomes including impacts, rigidity, abrasion, retention (how well the helmet stays on your head), chin straps and visors (including anti-fog claims). Alongside these durability tests, ECE also checks how well the helmet performs against humidity, UV light, solvents and temperatures.
Paying attention to the overall performance of a motorcycle helmet in so many different scenarios makes a lot of sense. It would be no good having a lid that is strong enough to withstand a crash but subject to higher temperatures, crumbles under pressure.
What are G’s and why are they used?
An impact happens when one object comes into contact with another. For example, if you crash, your helmet will come into contact with the road or other objects. The energy of the impact is measured in gravitational force or G’s. The higher the G’s, the more likely it is to suffer serious brain damage or even death. Anything above 300g is known to cause fatal injuries. Impact testing is designed to replicate the force behind a crash to determine if a helmet can withstand and soften the impact. Therefore, saving the rider from a fatal head injury.
Impact testing explained
The ECE 22.05 impact test examines multiple points on the helmet, including the chin guard. Testing impacts with a carefully calibrated machine that smashes the helmet with a consistent force against a smooth anvil, known as a curbstone.
Impact tests by SNELL and DOT use hemi anvils which are different shapes and create an impact in a more concentrated area. For the science buffs out there, this creates a more substantial energy impact as the force of the blow is not as spread out.
Not every accident is the same, which is why ECE differs from other testing regulations such as DOT. What sets it apart from DOT is that ECE test larger batches of helmets and continue to do so throughout production. DOT, on the other hand is fundamentally different as manufacturers self-certify against DOT’s standards. DOT only tests a handful of lids every year and relies on manufacturers being honest about their safety. This, as you can imagine, is an approach widely open to abuse. DOT enforce hefty fines as a deterrent but cannot always guarantee quality.
How to tell your helmet is ECE certified
If you’ve bought an ECE certified helmet before or have been looking to buy one, you may have noticed a sticker on the back showing the helmet conforms to the current safety standards. Alongside the ECE 22.05 mark, you may see some letters. These can be J, P or NP. These letters apply to modular helmets:
J: Protective open face helmet
P: Protective chin guard, usually a rating for Full Face helmets
NP: Chin guard not designed or approved protection
P/J: Dual homologation helmets. These are flip-front (sometimes known as modular) helmets that have passed testing with the chinbar raised and in position.
Next time you’re purchasing a modular helmet, check for these approval types as if you plan on spending time riding with the chin-bar raised, you want to know your helmet has been designed to withstand an impact, to make sure you have the best level of protection.
ECE 22.05 Pros:
- A broad range of helmet sizes tested
- ECE certification tests large batch samples of helmets prior to sale and random testing throughout the model’s production (https://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/trans/main/wp29/wp29regs/r022r4e.pdf)
- The energy transfer level from helmet to skull has a lower limit (275g) compared to other regulation testing criteria, for example, DOT (300g)
ECE 22.05 Cons:
- Lower energy testing can result in inadequate results for other areas where speed may be higher, for example, racing or other countries who have higher speed limits which could result in more gravitational force during an impact. By lowering the g-force limit, you cannot prove the helmet will be sufficient in these higher energy impacts.
- Fixed striking places can make it easier for manufacturers to “bulk out” these zones and rig the test.
Launched in 2007 by the department for transport (UK), SHARP is additional testing for ECE 22.05 certified motorcycle helmets. SHARP’s objectives are to provide clear, impartial information on the level of safety a lid offers as well as providing information on the correct fit.
SHARP specifically evaluates helmets which are available within the UK. Therefore, if you reside in another country, you are unlikely to see this certification. A lot of motorcyclists rate SHARP because they are an independent tester, unlike DOT, which requires the manufacturer to perform their own tests.
Why does SHARP testing matter?
There has been a lot of research into the effects of hitting your head during a crash. After a lot of research into motorcycle crashes, a report was drafted called COST 327. Using the data collected, SHARP concluded that the temple needs a lot of protection and helmets should absorb more energy from impacts to prevent critical injuries. With this in mind, SHARP realised that not all helmets that pass ECE 22.05 offer the same levels of protection. Also, motorcyclists may or may not know that having the correct fit adds to the amount of protection. SHARP aims to simplify a buyer’s job by providing clear information with a handy star rating and colour coded guide.
SHARP perform 30 linear and 2 oblique tests on a minimum sample size of 7 helmets. The helmets are a range of sizes (which makes it a lot more reliable) with impacts delivered at 3 speeds (6, 7.5 and 8.5 metres per second). Like other certifying bodies, SHARP use anvils to test the performance of the lid against an impact. The best thing about SHARP is they use 3 types of the anvil, flat, kerb and abrasive.
This table shows SHARP’s impact testing:
|Helmet||Velocity||Impact type and location on helmet||Impact surface|
|1||6.0 m/s||Linear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and Rear||Flat anvil|
|2||6.0 m/s||Linear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and Rear||Kerb anvil|
|3||7.5 m/s||Linear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and Rear||Flat anvil|
|4||7.5 m/s||Linear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and Rear||Kerb anvil|
|5||8.5 m/s||Linear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and Rear||Flat anvil|
|6||8.5 m/s||Linear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and Rear||Kerb anvil|
|7||8.5 m/s||Oblique impacts to the Left and Right sides||Abrasive anvil|
Alongside impact testing, the facial protection levels are also determined to examine the level of safety of the chin bar on full-face or flip front helmets. The chin bar is crucial as it protects your face and lower jaw. For flip-front helmets, the closing mechanism of the flip-front is tested to make sure it remains closed during impacts. A percentage score is given to show how well the lid performs; 100% is outstanding.
SHARP Calculations and overall ratings
Calculating the overall score of a helmet is extremely complex. In a nutshell, it consists of how well the helmet performed in all areas of testing including the likelihood of impact protection in different areas on the helmet, how well it coped at different speeds and against different surfaces. SHARP award a final rating out of 5 stars; 1 being the lowest, through to 5 stars for the highest quality. A colour coded head map showing colours from black (poor) to green (very good) shows how each area performs.
Overall, SHARP is a great way to make sure your ECE 22.05 is one of the best available. SHARP has received plenty of awards for their dedicated research and testing criteria from accredited bodies such as FIM.
SHARP ruffled a few feathers when it was launched as some of the established brands were caught on the back foot when their SHARP ratings were lower than some budget rivals. Since then, SHARP has struggled to win over the industry as some claim that helmet manufacturers produce helmets with stronger materials in areas where they know SHARP will test the helmet.
- Tests include a range of speeds and heights plus different anvil shapes for a more accurate result
- SHARP’s criteria tests for 30% more energy input than ECE 22.05 requires
- SHARP test a broad range of helmets for optimum results
- Post-impact helmet autopsy identifies further weak spots to assist in overall ratings
- Transparent rating system for each lid for a better-informed choice for riders
- Some claim manufacturers produce helmets to get a 5-star rating by reinforcing areas they know will be tested.
The ACU sticker
Created by the Auto Cycle Union, ACU stickers are mainly applicable to racers and trackday riders. The ACU sticker used to be seen as ‘the standard’ 20 years ago but now it has been largely superseded by ECE and SHARP standards.
The ACU Sticker used to come in two varieties, Gold and Silver, but now Silver has been withdrawn. A Gold ACU Sticker determines that your helmet has been deemed safe to use in a high-speed environment.
Silver ACU stickers were the minimum requirement for speed events held entirely offroad (Motocross, enduro or other). A lot of tracks still require an ACU gold sticker as a minimum requirement for racing on any short circuit, road, drag or other speed events.
That said, on the track days I’ve been to over the past 3 years, I’ve not had anyone inspect my helmet. Full face helmets should come with an ACU sticker attached, if not, you can send your helmet away to ACU for testing, with a small fee, and they will assign one for you or point the scrutineer to the ECE 22.05 rating and they’ll probably back down.
(SNELL applies to the US only and it’s unlikely you’ll find a reference to it on a helmet bought inside the EU)
Founded in 1957 in the USA to honour Peter Snell who died in a motorcycle accident, the Snell memorial foundation aims to ensure helmets have an adequate level of protection and to help manufacturers make their helmets safer for riders.
Understanding SNELL stickers
SNELL offer private approval for manufacturers who offer up their helmets for more strict testing criteria. These days, SNELL issue certificates for motorsport, motorcycle or karting helmets. Motorcycle helmets are issued with a certificate sticker starting with the letter M (motorcycle) followed by the numbers 2000, 2010, 2015, 2020D or 2020R at present. The figure represents the year the testing was relevant. As of late 2019, 2020R and D are coming into effect. A lot of helmets on the shelves will continue to say M2015, but this does not mean your helmet is any less safe. The certification is still valid.
The D and R stand for DOT certified and ECE certified. The aim of splitting the SNELL certification is to show a helmet will pass the ECE 22.05 testing. Even if the helmet is R certified, this does not mean the lid has been approved for use within any ECE compliant countries though, just the level of safety could pass. (Always wear the correct helmet to comply with country road laws).
How SNELL certify helmets
Like SHARP, SNELL aims to build on government safety standards by performing testing at much higher levels, with more in-depth criteria. Here are the steps involved:
Impact testing – Dropping helmets onto different shaped anvils and surfaces and the energy transfer to the “head” must not exceed 300Gs (measurement for gravitational force).
Secure on head test – Helmet straps are tested to make sure the lid remains securely in place. A force of 4kg is applied while the helmet is at an angle similar to crash victims. If the lid stays in place, it passes.
Retention straps – The retention strap is subject to a 23kg weight for 1 minute. If it passes this stage, SNELL replace the load with a 28kg weight and the test repeated. The strap cannot stretch passed 30mm, or it will fail.
Chin bar – With the chin bar facing upwards, a 5kg weight is dropped from a height to simulate a forward face crash. The chin bar cannot crack or bow too much.
Penetration testing – A 3kg spike is used to test how well a helmet can withstand a penetration.
Face shield penetration testing – My favourite test, thanks to its extreme nature. An air rifle fires a bullet at speeds of 310mph into the visor to check how well it performs against penetrations.
Once a helmet has passed the following, it’s ready to be SNELL certified. As you can see, there are plenty of hoops to jump through, which is why SNELL helmets come highly rated. Another plus is SNELL often perform random purchases of helmets through retailers to monitor the consistency of quality. If SNELL find the helmets are not up to scratch, they can suggest manufacturers make changes or de-certify their products.
- Testing criteria is a lot stricter than DOT
- The impact energy transfer ranges from 260 – 300Gs depending on the standard and test type. Having a lower impact threshold means there is less chance of a brain related injury as less force is transferred to the brain. A broad range of tests is carried out, and weak areas of a helmet sought out to ensure the highest level of protection
- The extreme tests may not reflect real-world situations for crashes (why jump through so many hoops if you don’t need to?)
- The high level of testing requires very strong helmet shells, which some claim can cause higher energy transfers to the brain in the event of a crash
- The voluntary service costs manufacturers money which reflected in the higher prices of SNELL certified helmets
(DOT applies to the US only and it’s unlikely you’ll find a reference to it on a helmet bought inside the EU)
DOT or DOT FMVSS No. 218, which is the official title is the equivalent certification to ECE 22.05 within the US. All US helmets must comply to safety standards before they are deemed useable on the roads.
How does DOT FMVSS No. 218 work?
The National Highways Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) set standards which manufacturers must adhere to. Once a manufacturer produces a helmet, they must test it and make sure it follows these standards. To obtain a DOT sticker, manufacturers can self-certify.
Sounds dodgy, how do I know my DOT certified helmet is safe?
Each year, the Department of Transportation will carry out random testing a select few models of helmets. Following their testing criteria, they will check if the lid is compliant. If a helmet fails, the manufacturer is asked to rectify the problems, perform a product recall before replacing customers’ helmets at their own expense or both. Also, hefty fines for non-compliance can be issued. These random tests are designed to make sure manufacturers remain honest as they could be subject to testing at any time.
DOT Testing criteria
DOT testing focuses on 3 main areas, impact accentuation, penetration and retention straps. If the helmet has a visor, manufacturers must test the peripheral vision (a minimum of 105degrees view from the centre).
Like all other impact tests from different certifying bodies, DOT uses a selection of anvils to determine how well the crash helmet will absorb a bump. There are two types of anvils used, a round and flat anvil which simulates different surfaces a collision might involve. Testers perform impacts at 4 various sites with 2 strikes on each. The examiner chooses where to hit the helmet within a specified area set by the DOT standards.
After, the helmet must then be subjected to various temperatures, humidity and water immersion to make sure the helmet can still perform after an incident.
The penetration test involves using a 6lb 10oz (3kg) pointed striker dropped from a height of 118” (3m). This is performed on various sites on the helmet to check for any weak areas.
Next, the retention strap is tested using 50lb and 300lb (22 and 136kg) weights. If the straps break, it will fail. It must also not stretch beyond 1” (2.5cm).
How many helmets are DOT compliance tested, and how do I know whether mine is safe?
The number of helmets pulled for testing each year varies. After some research, we found a total of 19 certified helmets in 2018 and 16 in 2019. Out of the 19 helmets tested in 2018, 11 failed on performance (a serious concern with the build of the helmet and it should not have been self-certified). In 2019, 3 out of 16 helmets failed. It may not sound like a large number but, you have to consider the number of helmets sold (of these 3 models) in this condition.
- 2 strikes per location makes for a more real-world result
- Testers can strike anywhere within a set boundary, unlike ECE which is at set points
- The honesty system of DOT is seriously flawed (there could be thousands of unsafe 3self-certified helmets out there which go untested)
- Fewer sizes are tested compared to ECE, SHARP or SNELL
- Fewer tests involved before certification (abrasion, visors and other impacts are not required).
Motorcycle Helmet Testing FAQ
Is an American DOT helmet legal in the UK?
No. All helmets in the UK must meet British safety standards. DOT does not. According to gov.uk, helmets used in the UK must adhere to one of the following:
- British Standard BS 6658:1985 and carry the BSI Kitemark
- UNECE Regulation 22.05
- a European Economic Area member standard offering at least the same safety and protection as BS 6658:1985, and carry a mark equivalent to the BSI Kitemark
If you’re buying a helmet with a DOT Sticker, check it also has an ECE 22.05 or BSI Kitemark. This should be visible on the rear of the helmet, the chin strap or possibly located under the lining on the inside of the helmet shell.
My helmet has been dropped, do I need to replace it?
If a helmet has sustained an impact, the transfer of energy could have damaged the level of protection it will provide. You should get your helmet inspected by a professional if you are in any doubt. Take it to your local motorcycle helmet retailers. Some brands will also offer an X-ray service.
Do all helmets rated by SHARP meet the minimum regulatory requirements?
Yes. SHARP only test helmets offered within the UK which have already passed UN-ECE Regulation 22.05 or British Standard 6658:1985.
How does the SHARP assessment differ from UN-ECE Regulation 22.05?
SHARP builds on the ECE 22.05 test by subjecting ECE approved helmets to more demanding impact tests. SHARP take on board the recommendations made by the COST 327 study.
Is the safety rating of a motorcycle helmet the only thing to consider when buying a new helmet?
No. The fit of the helmet is the most important aspect when choosing a new helmet. Research shows that around 10 – 14% of fatalities occur because the helmet comes off during a crash. Try on as many helmets as possible and wear them for at least 5 minutes so you know how comfortable they are.
What if my helmet has a low rating by SHARP?
All helmets tested by SHARP are ECE 22.05 approved. This is the minimum safety standards it needs to achieve to be road legal. Therefore, your helmet is still up to the task. Remember that if the fit isn’t right, even high rating SHARP helmets will not protect you well enough.
Do I need a SHARP rated helmet?
No. SHARP is not a replacement test for ECE 22.05 rather a consumer information service that shows more detail about the overall performance of the helmet.