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Helmet Impact Attenuation Test

Or are they?  Ever wonder what standards and the testing that goes into DOT and/or SNELL certified helmets?

I did, but first some background.

Tucked within the Department of Transportation is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which regulates the performance of motorcycle helmets (among other vehicle products) under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. In accordance with the Safety Act, NHTSA promulgated Standard No. 218, which spells out the testing procedures that helmets sold in the U.S. must satisfy.

One of these procedures is an “impact attenuation test,” which involves the dropping of a helmet from a minimum height of six feet onto an anvil to measure the effect of the impact on the helmet. Id. at S7.1. Another test applies force to a helmet’s chin strap to determine whether the helmet will remain in place during a crash. See id. at S7.3.

Interestingly, Standard 218 relies on self-certification, which means that companies test and certify their own helmets rather than having NHTSA do it for them. When helmets pass the test, the companies place a Department of Transportation (“DOT”) label on them.  NHTSA enforces these requirements by randomly purchasing helmets, employing independent companies to run compliance tests on them and publishing the results.

DOT certified helmets according to conventional wisdom are typically less-expensive than SNELL certified helmets.  I’m not so sure given the internet pricing these days.  At any rate, the SNELL Memorial Foundation (a not-for-profit American organization funded by helmet makers) sets widely adopted standards for helmet performance.  In fact, Formula 1’s sanctioning body, the FIA, has a similar helmet standard that applies to many racing events.  The SNELL certification sticker on a helmet means it has passed a series of tests that hopefully you’ll never experience!  For example a few of the latest SNELL SA 2010 standards (updated every 5 years) are as follows:

Outer Layer: The outer layer is made from a composite such as fiberglass or carbon fiber and covered with a protective enamel coating.  To meet the SA 2010 standard a helmet must be able to withstand a 1450-degree (F) propane flame for 30 seconds during which the padding inside the helmet can’t exceed 158 degrees.

Face Plate: Open face helmets are acceptable for some, but those who want all the protection possible will opt for a full-face helmet with a visor shield.  The SNELL test calls for a visor shield to resist piercing by one-gram lead pellets fired at it in 3 locations at a speed of 311 MPH.  In addition, the shield must endure 1450-degree (F) torch for 45 seconds without melting.

G-Forces: If you take a serious blow to your helmeted head, most of the force is absorbed by the thick layer of foam.  The SNELL standard mandates the helmet must accelerate the head it’s protecting at a peak of no more than 275g after being struck with an anvil at speeds as high as 17 MPH.  Certain procedures subject the helmet to three of these hits in a row.  The structure of the helmet must remain intact.

I don’t think there is anyone out there who is confused about the purpose of a crash helmet, but now when you see the SNELL or DOT symbol you may have a better appreciation of the standards.

Links to some helmet manufactures:  AraiBellPyrotect ProSchuberth GmbHSimpson

Looking for more information?  There is an interesting article written by Dexter Ford, long-term writer for Motorcyclist, who researched and wrote the article in the New York Times entitled “Sorting Out Differences in Helmet Standards.” It was published on September 25, 2009.  Conspiracy advocates believe Ford was fired over the article which angered the magazines advertisers.

Still looking for more?  The court (Cincinnati-based federal appeals) revives a defective motorcycle helmet claim against Fulmer Helmets HERE.

Photo courtesy of NY Times/Jim Brown.

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