DOT-Certified Helmets & Government Performance TestsSince 2014, 124 helmets claiming DOT compliance have been tested; 52 (41.9 percent) of them failed performance tests. Want to know more? Read on.We recently wrote about several of the world’s motorcycle helmet performance standards.
The next step is to see how the system—one that affects those of us who wear helmets in the United States—is working.Federal helmet test data provides insight into how the mandatory helmet standard known as DOT FMVSS 218 and its testing and enforcement mechanism works.For consumers interested in getting the best personal protective gear no matter what they ride, be it an on-road or off-road motorcycle, scooter, ATV/UTV, snowmobile, mini-bike or mini-cycle, helmet selection can be a little confusing.The descriptions of the technical aspects of the various helmet performance standards in many ways seem the same—yet they are each a little different.Not every helmet standard has criteria for every aspect of performance that allows easy identification of the best or most protective helmet for each type of application. Not every helmet standard includes performance testing for face shields, either, which some consumers may wish to know about.For stateside helmet purchasers, if the helmet is to be used on public roads, it has to be self-certified by the manufacturer as meeting the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218 (DOT FMVSS 218).The standard is enforced—if indirectly—by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).Enforcement is carried out by post-marketing inspection. NHTSA sends a list of helmets to be checked out to a third-party testing lab—ACT Labs in California and in the past Southwest Research Institute in Texas—which then acquires off-the-shelf examples and tests them against the DOT standards to verify compliance.The rationale for this approach is that it is intended to prevent the manufacturer from selecting or producing a special sample of helmets designed specifically to pass the tests.This assumes that it would be economically feasible for the manufacturer to whip up a batch of custom-made helmets that would be superior to the helmets they mass produce in order to meet the DOT standards. That assumption seems both unrealistic and self-defeating for the manufacturer.Helmets that fail to meet the standards based on the lab’s testing may result in the manufacturer facing fines and having to pull the product off the market by recall, which has significant financial implications.There are two problems with this type of after-the-fact system.First, the manufacturer doing its own performance testing may make an honest mistake in its interpretation of the test methods and/or results data, leading to helmets later being found to be non-compliant.Second, by the time the post-marketing testing catches up with a non-compliant product, many of the helmets may already be out on the streets. If the consumer doesn’t register the helmet purchase with the manufacturer for warranty coverage, or by some other mechanism, they may not receive a recall notice from the manufacturer, should a recall be initiated.To learn how effective the post-marketing testing system is, NHTSA test reports from 2014 to 2018 were reviewed.Testing data shows that between 2014 and 2018 a total of 124 helmets were subjected to post-marketing testing by ACT Labs or Southwest Research Institute on behalf of NHTSA for compliance to FMVSS 218 performance standards.Results data from reports available on the NHTSA website as of February 15, 2019, are summarized in the table below. Duplicate or incomplete reports were not counted.
|Summary of NHTSA Helmet Testing Data 2014 to 2018|
|Year||Total Tested||Total Failed||Failed on Performance||Failed labeling only||Investigations||Recalls|
|2018||2 (Reports posted to date, 2/15/2019)||1||1 (also failed labeling)||0||0||0|
|2017||34||17||10 (5 of those failed labeling also)||7||14||0|
|2016||24||13||9 (5 of those failed labeling also)||4||12||3|
|2015||33||19||16 (5 of those failed labeling also)||3||14||6|
|2014||31||19||16 (9 of those failed labeling also)||3||3||1|
|Totals:||124||69||52 (41.9% of those tested)||17||43||10|
Ideas for improvementThe data suggests that there is room for improvement in the system. When you buy a helmet with the DOT label on it, you have no assurance that it has actually been tested and been proven to pass all the performance tests. If it is tested later and found to fail in any aspect of performance, what does that really mean?The system as it exists now is pass/fail, so you do not know if a helmet that failed only one of the multiple impact or penetration or retention system tests is as deficient as one that failed two, three, or all four tests (ambient temperature, low temperature, high temperature and with water immersion)?Here are some ideas for potential system improvement. One deals with modifying FMVSS 218 that may require no major investment by any stakeholder and could result in lower cost for consumers as well as wider choice among helmet options.A cost-effective approach like that already used by the federal government in healthcare quality could be applied to reforming FMVSS 218. Under current federal policy, if a hospital, nursing home, or other facility or provider achieves accreditation by JCAHO, NCQA, AAAHC or other recognized private accreditation body, the federal inspection process is not done. Instead, the accredited provider is “deemed” to have met the federal standards that apply by achieving that accreditation. Duplicative administrative costs are eliminated.Why not do the same for helmets? Here’s an example of how that could be done—add provisions to FMVSS 218 that state something along these lines:Any helmet having been certified by recognized testing laboratories as defined by the certifying authority as meeting the applicable performance standards for motorcycle helmets intended for use on public roads shall be deemed as compliant with all provisions of this part. Helmets approved under this provision must display labeling indicating the certification or approval the helmet has, but are not required to bear the DOT label. This provision shall apply to helmets compliant with the following standards: UNECE 22.05, FIM FRHPhe-1, Snell M2020 D or R, JIS T8133 2015, NBR-7471:2001 (and/or others that substantially meet or exceed FMVSS 218).This would allow a helmet buyer to go to the internet or their local dealer and buy an ECE 22.05 compliant, Snell Memorial Foundation approved, or FIM FRHPhe-1 (or other deemed standard system) compliant helmet with or without the DOT label. That would enable consumers to get the helmet with the performance and features they prefer, without being constrained by the presence or absence of a DOT certification label that may or may not guarantee a certain level of performance.Manufacturers set up to do their own DOT compliance testing or have arrangements to contract it out could continue to do so, if they wish. Those manufacturers already pursuing Snell Memorial Foundation certification, ECE 22.05 certification, or FRHPhe-1 could continue that, as well, but they would not have to do DOT testing if they achieve compliance on other deemed standards. They would label their helmets as they currently do when they achieve compliance under those other systems.ACT Labs, the independent lab that does the most recent FMVSS 218 compliance testing for NHTSA, is also qualified to conduct compliance testing to ECE 22.05 standards and may include FIM FRHPhe standards testing in the future.This entails some trade-offs. Helmets certified to ECE 22.05 standards may offer more impact attenuation capability, but are not tested for resistance to shell penetration as DOT standards call for. Instead, ECE 22.05 standards call for testing overall shell rigidity, which DOT standards do not address.The ECE 22.05 certified helmet is a known quantity. It must pass the applicable tests before it can be placed on the market. A helmet under DOT standards may not have been correctly tested or proven by the manufacturer or its testing contractor to meet the penetration, impact, or retention system standards prior to going on the market as the post-marketing test failure data suggests. In fact, if the manufacturer is not required to submit any evidence of that testing for self-certification, the testing may not have been done at all.So, another thing that could be done to update FMVSS 218 that shouldn’t be particularly burdensome to manufacturers that are already testing for compliance, would be for NHTSA to require submission of the manufacturer’s test results (or that of their testing contractor) for each helmet they plan to label as compliant with DOT standards prior to marketing or, if the helmet is already on the market, submit completed test data on a one-time basis to confirm compliance.The DOT label could be applied only after the test procedures and results are reviewed by NHTSA. Post-marketing testing as directed by NHTSA could still be used to verify continued compliance.If the helmet design or specifications change in such a way that performance could be affected, a new test report could be submitted. For example, if shell material or impact liner material or dimensions change, then retesting and submission of the new results could be required.There is a range of options that could be used to make helmet standards and regulation more consistent, more effective, and less costly. There are also ways to allow consumers greater choice in the helmet market and make things a little less confusing. These are just a few ideas to start a conversation that the data suggests is due.To have a look at the NHTSA helmet test reports that provide results for each helmet tested in detail, visit this NHTSA page: http://www.nhtsa.gov/cars/problems/comply/To view motorcycle helmet compliance test reports:
- Select “Equipment” and choose to search by “FMVSS”
- Click “Submit Search”
- Select “218” in the FMVSS menu
- Select the desired year
- Click “Submit Choices”