Motorcycle Helmet Ratings For Dummies

Motorcycle Helmet Ratings For Dummies

If you are reading this, then you’re probably wondering about the differences between DOT and SNELL motorcycle helmet ratings.

More than likely, it’s because you’ve realized that there are some pretty dramatic price differences between the two. And then, while shopping, you might have even stumbled across a small section of ECE rated helmets, or ones with SHARP ratings.

That can make things even more confusing.

So, to help you decide which helmet is best for you, we are going to explain what all the terms mean and answer your most important question.

“Will the helmet keep your brains intact if you lay down your bike”?

Because, in the end, that is all that really matters.

The 4 Types of Motorcycle Helmet Ratings

Yes, there are four different types of motorcycle helmet ratings, and it’s possible for a helmet to rate for just one of them or for all of them.

Note:  If you don’t have at least one rating sticker on your helmet, then you might as well avoid the helmet hair and go without one. It’s pretty much the same thing.

DOT Motorcycle Helmet Ratings

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has put together a series of strict requirements designed to measure the impact performance of a helmet. In addition to testing impact performance, they look at several different things.

  • Helmet Retention System
  • Field of Vision
  • Penetration Resistance
  • Labeling

During the impact test, a tester is allowed to strike the helmet anywhere in the coverage area with a hemispherical anvil. They can also strike in the same spot a second time. The thought behind this is that the first strike might compromise the integrity of the helmet and allow a second hit to penetrate.

The helmet either passes or fails the test depending on how much force it can withstand. If it passes, then it gets stamped with DOT approval.

The DOT helmet rating is considered the most basic of all the ratings, and even though it’s considered respectable, there are a few concerns.

First, they don’t test EVERY helmet. Instead, they select a random sampling. The belief is that a random sample will identify design or material issues within a line of helmets. For the most part, they are right. However, there have been instances when a DOT rated helmet failed during a crash. It’s not often, but it does happen.

SNELL Motorcycle Helmet Ratings

The Snell Memorial Foundation rating (aka SNELL) has long been considered the most difficult rating for a helmet to get. Originally, SNELL testing was designed for racing helmets but now its used to rate all types of helmets.

To obtain a SNELL rating, a helmet is subjected to three different types of anvil strikes: flat, hemispherical, and edge. Like we saw in the DOT testing, the tester is allowed to strike the same spot more than once. The difference between the DOT and SNELL is where those spots are located.

The DOT test only allows strikes to a specified coverage area. The SNELL strikes can be made anywhere. The tester identifies what he considers to be the weakest part of the helmet. Nothing is off limits. He can even test things like the visor hinge. The idea is that no part of the helmet should leave the rider vulnerable to an impact.

Another difference between DOT and SNELL is that EVERY helmet is tested before it receives its motorcycle helmet rating.

The downside is that the stricter requirements and more thorough testing come with a price tag. SNELL rated helmets are much higher in price than DOT rated helmets. Also, because this rating was meant for racing helmets, it is very hard for a street helmet to pass. Things like shaded visors will automatically disqualify a very safe helmet from receiving a SNELL rating.

Riders just have to evaluate their risks and their budget and decide if the DOT rating (which is a good rating) is enough, or if they want more.

ECE Motorcycle Helmet Ratings

What about that ECE rating?

The Economic Commission of Europe (ECE) rating is not as familiar in the United States because it was designed for European helmets. However, with the growing number of import bikes sold in the States, ECE rated helmets are becoming more prevalent.

ECE ratings are hard to compare to DOT and SNELL. First, the ECE tests much lower impact rates than either of the other two. However, they do evaluate other elements that DOT and SNELL do not. In particular, they look at things that could lead to a crash, not just impact performance.

  • Face Shields
  • Shell Rigidity
  • Other Safety Features

Like SNELL, the ECE tests every helmet, not a random sample.

So, what you need to know is that an ECE rated helmet may not withstand higher impacts, but it may have the safety features that prevent you from having an accident in the first place.

SHARP Motorcycle Helmet Ratings

It wasn’t too long ago, that the British government decided Europeans needed more information regarding the safety  of their helmets than what was being provided by the ECE.

So, SHARP ratings were created.

For the first time, helmets were not rated as PASS/FAIL but instead given a star rating. Think of it as a grade card. This helmet got an “A,” this one a “B,” and this one a “C.”

SHARP ratings are only issued for helmets that have already received an ECE rating. Therefore, it’s not really about showing that a helmet is safe. The ECE tests already did that. Instead, the SHARP rating just indicates which of the ECE helmets performed the best during testing.

Which Helmet Is Right for You?

If you can tell me where and how you plan to crash, then I can answer that question.

For instance, if you plan to wreck your Aprilia Scooter while driving through downtown Paris, then an ECE helmet is probably all the protection you need. If instead, you’ve opened up the throttle on your Yamaha YZF R1M on the highways outside Las Vegas, you best be wearing a SNELL helmet and Kevlar.

For your daily commute, a DOT helmet probably meets the safety needs of most riders.

NOTE: If you are a teenager who has a mother who loves you, get the SNELL. I don’t care if you only plan to tool around on a 250cc Scoote. Your Mom deserves the SNELL! (and she will probably pay for it).

Safety Is Only as Good as the Fit

So, there you have it. The differences between motorcycle helmet ratings.

But I feel like I need to leave you with one parting thought.

Safety ratings mean nothing if you don’t have a properly fitting helmet. A DOT rated helmet that fits properly will protect you better than a SNELL that costs nine times as much if it doesn’t fit right.

In the end, it all comes down to what you ride, where you ride it, and how much money you want to spend.  Any helmet that has a DOT, SNELL, or ECE rating is acceptable. They have all passed numerous tests and should protect your melon in an accident. The SNELL just passes more tests than the others.


One comment on “Motorcycle Helmet Ratings For Dummies

  1. Emm on

    I found your article while looking at various helmet ratings and I just have one minor point about SHARP; it is true that it rates helmets that have passed ECE 22.05 but it also tests the helmets at a higher impact velocity than 22.05.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Motorcycle GearologyMotorcycle Gearology