DOT safety rating on motorcycle helmet on a shoei helmet

The Throttle Stop is built on the voices and knowledge of riders everywhere, and our "One Rider's Opinion" series is all about sharing the viewpoints of individuals who are just wild and loud enough to share their thoughts, even when others might disagree. If you ride, you have opinions on how you and other people ride. Different bikes, different minds. We want to hear from you. 

I’m a helmet guy, and have been for all of the 40 years I have been using them. Shortly after beginning to work in the motorcycle industry, I found that I was not only interested in every aspect of their features and benefits, but also becoming known for my ability to match heads with the right lids. This led to the natural conclusion of my friends, customers, and co-workers referring to me as “The Helmet Guy.”

Over a decade ago Motorcyclist Magazine published “Blowing The Lid Off,” an article about helmet certifications by Dexter Ford that is still considered by many to be the best piece of investigative journalism in motorcycling. I was extremely interested in their findings and conclusions to say the least. As I am also known for being extremely opinionated, I knew I might be a pretty hard guy to challenge with conflicting opinions. Regardless of the findings and conclusions of the article, it was certainly a positive move for the industry. The publication provided its readers with enough knowledge and information to allow them to make informed choices. In addition, it taught about the consequences of how those choices apply in real life.

Although I certainly couldn’t take issue with any of their findings, I did take issue with some of the conclusions they drew from them. I was concerned that many of my customers were misinterpreting the information, reinforcing the notion that a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous (or in this case, lead to dangerous choices).

The article pointed out that the most revered and respected of the safety standards here in the United States, those of the Snell Memorial Foundation, called for a “harder” helmet than all of the other standards. Compared to the Economic Commission of Europe and Department of Transportation, SNELL was said to allow more “G’s” to be transmitted to the wearer’s head in lower impact situations, and therefore was more likely to cause an injury to the brain than the “softer” helmets that would not pass the rigorous SNELL testing. They also theorized that the lion’s share of motorcycle accidents involved lower impact situations, lower than the type of impacts from which Snell-rated helmets were originally designed to protect.

Snell seemed to have acknowledged that reality, and their newer (2010) standard is actually softer than its forerunners, while still harder than both ECE and DOT. Sadly, many people finished reading the article believing that even the DOT-only rated helmets, which are far less expensive, were actually safer than their more expensive Snell-rated counterparts. This is absolutely not true. With all other things being equal, I might agree they’d better protect you from being concussed in certain situations, that alone hardly means they are “safer” in all situations.

But all other things are not equal. DOT-only rated helmets are subjected to random testing only. While their manufacturer may claim to have built them to comply with the standard published by DOT, they are not required to submit them for testing prior to being manufactured or sold. Basically you are buying a product (the majority of which are made in China) that, rather than being tested, is manufactured on an honor system of safety vetting with little or no oversight.

The Snell Foundation’s rating, on the other hand, actually tests every model. Every shell size will ultimately receive their approval or denial. Sometimes the smaller shell sizes pass, while the larger ones fail. If your helmet has a SNELL certification, you can be certain that the one you are actually wearing has met or exceeded their testing standards. Also, in my experience, the DOT-only helmets rarely fit as well as their more expensive ECE and Snell-rated counterparts. That leaves you not only less comfortable, but less protected as well, as proper fit is imperative to providing the maximum protection that any helmet might be capable of providing. My experience has also brought me to believe that the higher-end helmets are built with a level of quality control that extends beyond safety-related areas. This includes the fit, finish, operation of ventilation controls, and virtually every single feature of the helmet-to-faceshield operation, and more. They also seem to offer longer (up to 5 years) warranties on the operation of those features than their less expensive competitors in most cases.

So that brings us to ECE vs Snell-rated helmets, and the differences. The Snell rating is a uniquely American standard, whereas ECE-rated helmets are available here and in Europe, as it is a European standard. If you purchase the same model helmet that is offered in both the US and Europe, it may look and feel exactly the same, but will actually be built differently to comply with the different standards. A Snell-rated helmet may not pass the ECE test, nor is an ECE-rated helmet guaranteed to pass the Snell test. 

What is the difference?

The first difference that you might notice when comparing helmets of equal quality is that the ECE-rated helmets are often a good deal lighter than their Snell-rated helmet competitors. In fact, even when comparing apples to apples, a helmet from Shoei sold in Europe with the ECE rating will be 200 grams (about 7 ounces) lighter than the exact same Snell-rated model here in the United States. Although the difference between a Snell-rated helmet and a DOT-rated helmet is far greater, the Snell-rated helmets are still harder than ECE-rated helmets, and therefore still transmit more force to the wearer’s head in a lower impact situation than will an ECE-rated helmet.

What is the theory behind Snell’s preference for the harder helmet? 

It is simple: With origins as a safety standard in higher-speed competition scenarios, they believe that their standard will protect the wearer from a much harder impact, one which could prove fatal in a softer shell. The focus is on keeping the rider alive in any magnitude of crash. They do acknowledge that the wearer may be more likely to sustain a concussion in a lower impact situation. The ECE position, in response to that belief, is this: If your head is impacted with a force that is hard enough to prove fatal, you are likely to suffer other, non-head related, fatal injuries as well. In this regard, their aim is to provide better protection in lower impact situations, since they hold true that the majority of road collisions fall under this category.

So is one helmet necessarily better than the other? 

I believe not. I believe that they are different and that the difference gives us one more criteria on which to base our choice. It’s your head, and you should be the author of its protection. My personal choice is to wear a Snell-rated helmet, for reasons that are both practical and perhaps even a little superstitious. I would prefer to risk being concussed over being killed. Granted, the odds are a thousand to one against me  living through a situation where I would need the harder helmet, but my choice remains the same. I have been wearing Snell-rated helmets for 40 years and have tested them more than I care to remember. Yet, I can indeed remember each and every one, as I have never been knocked unconscious (let alone been concussed) thanks to helmet technology. But the choice is yours, and yours alone... because after all is said and done, it is your head on the line!

Have your own opionions on helmet selection? Let’s hear them in the comments below.

Bobby Buchsbaum (@brkn_bnz) has been in love with motorcycles since long before he was allowed to own one, in love with sport bikes since long before they were produced, and in love with motorcycle roadracing since his first day at a racetrack more than 40 years ago. Through the decades, he dabbled with amateur roadracing, built several machines that were featured in national publications such as Cycle World, Motorcylist and Sport Rider magazines, a few of which won WERA National Roadracing Championships, and one of which was featured here on BikeMinds. He was a co-founder of Reduc Sportbike Association, the first trackday club east of California. He has been selling motorcycle protective wear for more than 25 years, and is well known by many of the major manufacturers in that industry not only for his expertise and passion, but also for being honest and forthright with his opinions. He is more than eager and willing to debate those opinions with those who have different perspectives. 

What's Your Take?

Do you narrow your helmet choices to those carrying additional approval beyond DOT?


Suggested vendor: Motool

Enjoy Your Ride!

Motool is a small, cutting-edge company from Portland, OR. Our mission is to bring the highest quality, most innovative products to market to help make your life easier, more informed and more fun. We believe in pushing the boundaries to find the far edges of what is possible and never giving up.