You can trace the roots of the modern motorcycle helmet all the way back to the 1930s and a neurosurgeon named Sir Hugh Cairns. After studying the effects of head trauma resulting from crashes, Cairns came up with what became affectionately and casually referred to as the first ‘crash helmets.’ Before the Cairns helmet, riders wore what amounted to old-timey leather football helmets — so an upgrade was welcomed. Fast forward to the early ’50s when Herman Roth invented a crash helmet with the first impact absorbing liner which, through innovations, upgrades and refinements, every modern helmet now features in some way, shape or form, as a baseline of protection.
Have you ever stopped to think why those small, mandatory stickers are on the back of your modern motorcycle helmet, or even what they stand for? In short, those DOT, ECE or Snell stickers show that your helmet is roadworthy and that it passed certain tests and meets specific safety standards. The longer explanation is they’re not all the same, don’t meet the same standards, require different tests for approval and after all of that your helmet still might not be as safe as you think it is (more on that last bit, later). What is really important is that you understand the gear you use on a basic level, especially if that particular piece of gear is meant to save your life.
DOT stands for Department of Transportation but the DOT doesn’t look at or test the helmet directly. Instead, the DOT holds the helmet manufacturers responsible for testing their own products and refining them to meet the set standards. Aspects like helmet retention, field of vision and penetration resistance are scrutinized. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “that sounds really shady and super unreliable,” that’s because of it is. The DOT sets relatively low bars for a passing score and relies on random sampling to catch bad designs instead of subjecting each helmet to a test. But don’t throw your helmet in the trash just yet.
While the DOT rating is the most basic of the main three, a DOT rated helmet is still can still be more than qualified to keep you safe in the event of a crash. Drop tests using predetermined heights and multiple penetration tests are performed all while measuring g-forces and assessing shell damage. But, because it is either a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, some DOT rated helmets can be safer than others.
ECE helmets, or helmets approved by the Economic Commission for Europe, are put through more thorough tests than DOT rated helmets and it’s the minimum standard 50-plus European countries will allow for road-legal motorcycle helmets. In ECE tests, third-party labs unleash a much more stringent test on helmets than DOT certification. Rider field of vision, shell strength and impact tests at fixed points on the helmet are all considered and tested on different shaped dummy heads. However, for the ECE testing the technician makes only a single blow to the helmet, as opposed to multiple.
Aside from having a more complex test system, the ECE requirements demand helmets be put to the test on different shaped dummy heads. Think of how differently shaped your head is to your friend’s or if you’ve ever tried their helmet on and it felt like torture because it simply didn’t fit. Even if a helmet is crash tested and rated, if it doesn’t fit or sits awkwardly on your head, it can cause pressure points and in the event of an impact actually cause damage.
Of the three certifications, Snell is the most stringent, trusted and rigorous. The Snell Foundation, which was founded in 1957 after Pete Snell died in a race car accident wearing an iteration of the Roth design mentioned earlier. After his death, his friends founded the Snell Foundation where scientists and engineers came up with and developed ways of testing helmet safety. Since then, Snell has been the leading light in head protection.
Aside from international FIA rated race helmets, Snell certified helmets are some of the most commonly allowed helmets at race tracks. Of the three, Snell helmets allow the lowest transfer of g-force through the helmet, go through multiple impact tests with different shaped weighted anvils of varying force and technicians are allowed to pick any point on the helmet to test multiple times — that includes any specific spot they deem as a weak point.