Regulatory changes could give helmet buyers better products, more choices and lower costs.
About a year ago, we took a look at the federal government’s own result data on safety performance testing done on helmets labeled as meeting DOT (FMVSS 218) performance standards.
The data was not encouraging; about four out of ten (41.9 percent) helmets claimed by the manufacturer to meet DOT safety standards failed to do so when actually put the test by an independent test lab (ACT Labs of California) under contract with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
That data looked back at the helmets tested from 2014 through 2017 and included what data (only two test reports were posted at the time the data was obtained from the NHTSA website) was available for 2018.
This data update includes all the data in that first article and adds everything on the NHTSA website for 2018 and 2019 as of 1/28/2020.
The data is summarized in the table below. And unfortunately, the results are no better. In fact, the overall results are slightly worse.
The percentage of helmets tested that failed on actual performance (not on the administrative requirements on labeling) increased to 43.1 percent, up from the 41.9 percent before.
|Summary of NHTSA Helmet Testing Data 2014 to 2018 (As of 1/28/2020)|
|Year||Total Tested (including all sizes tested)||Total Failed||Failed on Performance||Failed labeling only||Investigations||Recalls|
|2019||25||19||9 (1 of those failed labeling also)||10||4||0|
|2018||20||18||12 (12 of those failed labeling also)||6||6||2|
|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:||167||105||72 (43.1% of those tested)||33||53||12|
To explain why this information is particularly troubling to motorcyclists in the U.S., take a look back at the way things work for helmet safety certification as described in the article last year:
For helmet purchasers in the United States, if the helmet is to be used on public roads, it must bear the DOT compliance label. The label implies that the helmet has been self-certified by the manufacturer or by a third-party tester as meeting the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218 (DOT FMVSS 218). Unfortunately, that is not what it actually means. 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 would have significant financial implications of its own.
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 from data, leading to helmets later being found to be non-compliant. Second, by the time the post-marketing testing actually 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. In reality, compliance-enforced recalls are relatively rare; of the 72 helmets found to fail on actual performance, only 12 helmet recalls (16.6 percent) resulted since 2014.
The simple fact is that the manufacturer may apply the DOT certification label whether the helmet has actually been tested and found to pass all the applicable tests or not. The federal safety standards do not require the manufacturer to provide NHTSA any documentation of test results proving the helmet meets the standards prior to the helmet being labeled that it does meet the standards and being sold to consumers.
The test failure rate on performance suggests this puts a lot of riders who may choose to wear a helmet at risk. Note that nothing in this article deals with mandatory helmet use—it is focused on the quality of helmets available to the buyer who chooses to use one.
As a result of this system, the data shows that on any given day, motorcyclists and other helmet purchasers in the U.S. have a greater than a four-in-ten chance of purchasing a helmet that does not meet the performance standards they were led to believe it does.
What’s worse, the way the law is set up, helmets that have actually been proven to meet more rigorous standards (Snell Memorial Foundation, ECE 22.05 and others, for example) by pre-marketing testing with documented results as required under those standards are not available to consumers unless the manufacturer opts for dual certification to include DOT testing—or at least labeling, as well. That imparts additional cost.
Looking at the data, here are some other key findings:
- Since 2014, a total of 167 helmets from 74 manufacturers of various sizes have been tested.
- Of the 167 helmets tested, a total of 105 (62.8 percent) helmets failed on performance, labeling or both.
- Of the 105 helmets tested that failed, a total of 72 (68.5 percent) failed one or more of the required performance criteria. Actual performance criteria include: impact attenuation, penetration resistance, retention system, each tested at ambient temperature, low temperature, high temperature and with water immersion).
- Of the 105 helmets tested that failed, a total of 33 (31.4 percent) failed on labeling alone (things like the label not meeting the label design and content specifications, not being permanently affixed, etc.). The labeling standards are more completely described in our standard’s story.
- Since 2014, NHTSA has stated that 53 investigations have taken place. The outcome of those investigations has not been reviewed for this article.
- Of 72 helmets that failed on performance, only 12 recalls (16.6 percent) were implemented.
If we slice-and-dice the data a little, there may be a small glimmer of good news. The trend line year-over-year may be showing a slight improvement in the most recent three-year period compared to the earliest three-year period.
That is, the three-year average percentage of failure on performance from 2014 to 2016 was 45.6 percent; for 2017 to 2019 it was 41.6 percent. The overall trend, however is affected by the 2018 test results that saw a whopping 60 percent performance failure rate among the helmets tested that year.
Regrettably, that means that a great many of the helmets sold in the past five years and likely to still be in use have a four-in-ten chance of being substandard; even by the comparatively weak standards in FMVSS 218.
In most product manufacturing areas where consumer safety is directly affected, defect/failure rates of 0.4 percent would be considered high; failure rates over forty percent would be considered absolutely unacceptable.
As dismal as the performance data is, there seems to be ample opportunity for improvement in the regulatory system that could allow consumers to have more choices to get better helmets with resulting increased competition and with that, the potential for lower costs.
Here are some ideas:
Since all helmets to be sold in the U.S. for road-going use must have the DOT label, but the data shows that those helmets do not actually meet the applicable performance standards nearly half the time, why not implement some simple steps to give consumers more choices that would include helmets certified under standards that require performance testing before the helmet is placed on the market?
Options for Motorcycle Helmet Safety Improvement:
1. Reform the language of FMVSS 218 to allow U.S. consumers to buy helmets that meet other, often more rigorous performance standards than those in FMVSS 218 and which require the helmet to be proven to meet the standards before being allowed on the market with compliance labeling (i.e. Snell Memorial Foundation, ECE 22.05, etc.). Here’s what that might look like:
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, in essence, is use of an approach that is already in use by the federal government for other purposes called “deeming.” It is an effective way to reduce regulatory costs and duplication by “deeming” a product which already meets or exceeds standards substantially equivalent or higher than the DOT standards to have also met the DOT standards.
Simply stated, this revision would allow any helmet having already met Snell Memorial Foundation, ECE 22.05 or other standards as or more rigorous than FMVSS 218 to be sold in the U.S. with or without the DOT label or associated testing. The industry is already ahead of the curve on this with a number of manufacturers already offering helmets with dual certification such as DOT and Snell Memorial Foundation or DOT and ECE 22.05.
Making other certifications that are substantially equivalent to or that exceed DOT standards sufficient by themselves for sale in the U.S. would simplify things for both manufacturers and consumers and create the potential for lower costs through less duplication.
The FMVSS 218 standard has requirements for the label content and how it is affixed to the helmet, but do not require that the helmet pass all the applicable tests prior to the label being applied and the product being put on the market.
Options for Motorcycle Helmet Safety improvement:
Simply add a pre-market testing requirement and that the results and description of the test method (which is already described in the standards) be submitted to NHTSA prior to the helmet being released to the market. Post-marketing testing as directed by NHTSA could still be used to verify continued compliance.
For manufacturers already doing their own testing or contracting it out, this would merely add the administrative step of submitting their results. For any manufacturers not verifying helmet performance at all, it would bring them up to par with those that are.
Those manufacturers already pursuing Snell Memorial Foundation certification, ECE 22.05 certification, FRHPhe-1 or other similar certifications could continue that, as well, but they would not have to do DOT 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, but would not have to display the DOT label on the certified helmet.
This step would bring DOT standards up to the level of Snell Memorial Foundation, ECE 22.05 and others that require proof of performance before approval and marketing. Note that Snell certification is not mandatory in the U.S. or elsewhere, but it is a rigorous process that is voluntarily pursued by a number of manufacturers.
To have a look at the NHTSA helmet test reports that provide results for each helmet tested in detail, visit: 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”
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and don’t necessarily represent an official position of Coram Publishing or Ultimate Motorcycling. If you agree the improvement is in order, feel free to share and comment below on this article.