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Are Motorcycle Helmet Standards Reliable?

Are Motorcycle Helmet Standards Reliable?Illinois is one of just a few states that does not require that motorcycle riders (adults or minors, drivers or passengers) wear a helmet, though it does require things like goggles and face shields. Even though the state doesn’t require helmet use, it is strongly advisable that riders wear a quality helmet.

According to the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NTHSA), 5,014 motorcycle riders were killed in motor vehicle crashes, accounting for about 14% of all traffic deaths. Though the number of fatalities dropped between 2018 and 2019, the number of riders who were injured (about 84,000) actually increased by 2%.

Furthermore, the NTHSA reported that “In States without universal helmet laws, 57 percent of motorcyclists killed in 2019 were not wearing helmets, as compared to 9 percent in States with universal helmet laws.”

In short? Helmets save lives.

What are motorcycle helmet standards?

The NTHSA sates that helmets sold in America must meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. These standards establish the “minimum level of protection” for motorcycle helmets. The standards include testing requirements. The testing requirements cover helmet positioning, conditioning, and test conditions (including an impact attenuation test, penetration test, and retention system test).

The NTHSA recommends that riders take the time to choose the correct helmet. Riders should consider the helmet’s fit, size, and style. The NTHSA states that riders should “Make sure your helmet has the DOT symbol on the outside back; this means it meets our Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS).” The NHTSA does not approve helmets on its own. The agency does, on occasion, test helmets.

Are DOT helmets safe?

A recent report by Jalopnik questions how reliable a DOT symbol on your helmet is. The report suggests that instead of looking for a DOT symbol or a Snell Foundation certification, that riders look for helmets with ECE and FIM certification. ECE is a European standard that stands for Economic Commission for Europe (ECE). FIM is another European standard that stands for International Motorcycling Federation. Snell Foundation certifications are voluntary, not mandatory.

According to, the standards are inconsistent. In some cases, the standards are obsolete. One problem is that DOT helmets are tested by the manufacturer instead of an independent organization. The Snell Foundation test procedures are considered less rigorous than the ECE testing procedures.

The FIM, in 2019, decided to use its own certification standards to address the inconsistent standards.

The Jalopnik report suggests the riders “Forget DOT and Snell, look for a helmet with ECE and FIM certification.” Jalopnik states that while the Snell Memorial Foundation started with good intentions, there is a fundamental problem with their testing of motorcycle helmets. The standard is based on the standard for car helmets – even though the types of crashes (motorcycle versus car) are much different. The Snell test required a “two-impact hit in the same location.” This test is much more comparable to a car crash. When a motorcycle accident occurs, the riders can bounce in virtually every direction. Snell added a new test that Jalopnik says renders its certification for motorcycle helmets “functionally useless.”

Both ECE and FIM use a rotational test for motorcycle helmets. The “lid crashes in six axes – which is more comparable to the way motorcycle accident victims move. The rotational test means that motorcycle helmet manufacturers “build softer helmets that deform more to lessen brain trauma.”

The difference in the ECE/FIM rotational test (which favors softer helmets) compared to the two-hit Snell test (which favors harder helmets) forced manufacturers to choose between the two viewpoints/testing methods.

Snell decided to address the difference between its tests and the ECE/FIM tests by adding a second test/standard. The new Snell standard removes the second hit – but doesn’t add any of the ECE/FIM rotational test requirements. The two Snell tests certify helmets as:

  • M2020D-rated helmets. These helmets use the “double-bounce hard-shell test.”
  • M2020R-rated helmets. These helmets only require the same first hit that ECE and FIM require without the follow-up rotation test.

In addition, while the D and R helmets have a different decal on the inside of the helmet, both models use the same Snell logo on the outside. The net result is that the hard-shell helmets are still getting a DOT approval and the soft-shell helmets aren’t comparable to the ECE/FIM models.

According to Jalopnik, the second test enables Snell to sell its testing to more motorcycle manufacturers (which more than likely would have shifted to ECE/FIM testing) even though the helmets don’t meet rigorous testing standards.

Product liability lawsuits and motorcycle helmets

Personal injury victims and the families of anyone killed in a motorcycle accident can file lawsuits against manufacturers who design or make defective products. If the product defect causes the victim’s injuries, then the victim has the right to seek damages for their medical bills, lost income, pain and suffering, and property damage. Families have the right to file a wrongful death claim.

In addition to the manufacturers, distributors and retailers of defective motorcycle parts (including motorcycle helmets) may be strictly liable if the motorcycle helmet fails to protect the rider

At Gainsberg Law, our Chicago personal injury lawyers have been strong advocates for motorcycle accident victims and families for 20 years. We fight aggressively to hold drivers liable if they drove in a negligent way. We work with product safety experts to hold manufacturers liable when they put their profits ahead of your safety. To speak with a respected Chicago product liability lawyer, call us at 312.600.9585 or complete our contact form to schedule an appointment