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Motorcycle Helmet Safety Ratings

DOT Logo on our very own Skull Crush Helmet


It only takes a second to turn your life upside down.

You wake up to a wonderful morning, dress up, hop on your bike, and ride a few blocks away for breakfast...

...only to realize that it’s not your typical morning journey.

A drunk bus driver suddenly drives by too fast and uncaring. He didn’t even notice your existence. Your eyes widen in panic as you lose your balance. It all happened so fast--you realize you can’t move away in time.

Think it’s something that won’t happen to you?

You can try to train yourself on how to ride a motorcycle and diligently follow all the rules of the road. However, some things are just beyond our control. Others still choose to break the simple traffic rules.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a pro or not. You can be a casualty of such irresponsible behavior. When that time comes, there’s too little time for you to react.

The short story clearly demonstrates that wearing the right gear matters. Wearing a helmet can help you avoid the injuries that will cost you your life.

The Role of Motorcycle Ratings On Road Safety

After we’ve established the importance wearing a helmet, it’s time to address one of the many reasons why people don’t buy one:

They’re overwhelmed by the choices given by the market.

Finding the right helmet for you is a daunting task. Aside from finding the one that suits your style, it’s also important to know about safety ratings.

There are three major safety ratings for motorcycles. Once you get to know them you’ll encounter a major problem: the three organizations don’t completely agree with each other.

We cannot assume that one grade is better than the rest. Nonetheless, it’ll be helpful if you know how the differences among the three and where they can be applied.

The three motorcycle helmet standards are DOT, SNELL and ECE. These labels are not mutually exclusive. Some helmet brands can be certified to at most two of these ratings.

It is, however, impossible to get all three certifications for a helmet. I’ll elaborate more on that later.

DOT-Certified Helmets

DOT stands for “Department of Transportation”. This certification is the mandatory US government standards, the FMV Safety Standard Number. 218.

In other words, DOT-certified helmets can be used on standard U.S. highways. They are also good for off-road and competitions.

SNELL Certified Helmets

SNELL’s name came from the Snell Memorial Foundation. It’s a private organization committed to enhance helmet safety. This certification has the toughest standards to pass and maintain.

This certification is voluntary. The government does not require manufacturers to comply with it. Their rigorous testing and high standards, however, make them desirable to some manufacturers.

ECE Certified Helmets

ECE stands for “Economic Commission for Europe”. It is the mandatory standard in Europe and 47 other countries. It’s also the certification required for international motorcycle racing.

DOT vs. SNELL vs. ECE: similarities and differences

The three organizations always agree to disagree when it comes to helmet safety. There are instances where they also share the same views.

The discussion of this topic can be grouped according to:

  • Type of test done
  • Testing procedure

Tests Done To A Helmet

There are three basic tests done by manufacturers and organizations. These are the impact attenuation test, retention system test and the penetration tests.

Impact Attenuation Test

The impact attenuation is where the tester places the helmet, raises it to a fixed height, and drops it to a round anvil. The DOT and ECE certification are following almost the same methodology when it comes to this type of testing.

SNELL, however, has a more intricate impact attenuation test. It uses different anvil shapes. It also drops the mannequin at different heights (ranges from 5-8 meter).

Retention System Test

The retention system test places the helmet straps under a specific load for a certain amount of time or height. The strap shouldn’t experience severe damage at a load below the standard.

For DOT, the helmet is subjected to a 22.7 kg (49.9 lbs) load for 0.5 minutes. Afterwards, the load is increased to 136 kg (299.2 lbs) and is kept for 2 minutes. A breakage of more than 25 mm is prohibited.

Meanwhile, SNELL uses an initial load of 23 kg (50.6 lbs). Testers relieve the load after minute, but the helmet immediately receives a 38 kg (83.6 lbs) load afterwards. Breakage of more than 30mm results is unacceptable.

ECE is different from the two. It uses a load of 10 kg first (approximately 22.0 lbs) at a height of a quarter of a meter (29.5 inches). No more than 35mm of breakage is allowed.

Penetration Test

The penetration test is done by dropping a piercing striker to the helmet from a fixed height. The striker should not penetrate deep enough to warrant a passing mark.

Like the impact attenuation test, the DOT and ECE helmets share the same standards. The more rigorous SNELL uses a different criterion.

Testing Procedures

The three organizations also have a different way of acquiring and testing samples.

The DOT is the most relaxed of the three. It operates based on trust. It just sets the standards and then sends them out for the manufacturers to comply.

The helmet manufacturers do their own tests and self-certify it by affixing the DOT logo at the back of the product. The government just acquires a random sample of the product, sends it to an independent testing lab, and checks the result if it complies with the standard.

There are no follow-up tests done after the certification.

Meanwhile, SNELL is a voluntary standard. The government doesn’t require manufacturers to follow SNELL standards. Companies that pass the standard are held in high regard, because it is one of the toughest certification to receive.

The manufacturers submit a sample of their helmet to the SNELL laboratory. They also do a follow up-test. SNELL regularly buys from companies that they certified and then test their products to see if it still meets the standards.

To certify for the ECE, manufacturers must be willing to undergo batch testing. They should submit up to 50 samples to an assigned laboratory (typically under the United Nations). This ensures that the quality of each helmet produced.

Why You Can’t See All Three Stickers On A Helmet

It’s impossible to find a DOT and SNELL logo on the same helmet. SNELL and ECE have varying opinions when it comes to safety.

SNELL believes that the thicker the EPS, the better the protection. This means that your helmet will most likely weigh heavier than the others.

On the other hand, ECE stresses that the lighter the helmet, the safer you are. DOT also agrees with ECE.

You can see a DOT and SNELL logo on the same helmet. The same goes with DOT and ECE.

If you find all three logos on your helmet, it’s time to question its legitimacy.


The three motorcycle helmet ratings may have different standards, but they serve their own purpose.

If you’re competing for a race, buy an ECE helmet. If you’re just casual rider who likes to travel a DOT-certified one is enough.

Just don’t forget to put ratings secondary to fit. The toughest helmet in the world can’t help you if you get one that’s too big or too small.

October 17, 2014 by Ciela Jane Geraldizo
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