Sample size in CY2020 was less than half that in CY2015; failure rate stays at about 40 percent
Over the past few years, tracking the results of helmet testing conducted by a contracted third-party for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has revealed some sobering facts.
NHTSA has a multi-year contract with ACT Labs of California to test helmets that claim compliance with all DOT (Department of Transportation FMVSS 218) helmet certification standards.
FMVSS 218 sets standards in three areas of helmet performance: impact attenuation (energy absorption); penetration resistance; and finally, the retention system effectiveness. The standard requires peripheral vision to be not less than 105° from the helmet midline. Projections from the surface of the helmet (snaps, rivets, etc.) cannot exceed 5 mm.
|Summary of NHTSA Helmet Testing Data 2014 to 2020 (As of 1/17/2021) ©Gary Ilminen, RN 2021|
|Year||Total Tested (including all sizes)||Total Failed||Failed on Performance||Failed labeling only||Investigations||Recalls|
|2020||16||6||1 (this model failed on labeling also)||5||6
|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:||183||111||73 (39.9% of those tested)||38||59||12|
Summary of results based on aggregate testing data for the past seven years:
- The sample size in 2020 was less than half that in 2015 and 2017. The problem with that is, the smaller the sample size, the less valid the result data will be. The only way to get the most accurate read on the true quality level of the helmets available to the purchasing public is to expand the sample size. To get the largest sample size possible, looking back over-testing results for several years is necessary. Taking the look-back period out to seven years expands the total sample size to 183 helmets of all sizes, brands and models tested. Given the number of brands, models, and sizes of helmets on the market, even that number is woefully inadequate, but it’s all that is available to generate a reasonably current sampling of helmet products.
- The percentage of helmets that were found to fail to meet the safety standards on one or more performance standards (what is tested to assess performance vs. labeling is described above) for the past seven years is 39.9 percent (73 out of 183). That means that consumers who have purchased a helmet on the market in the past seven years labeled as “DOT Certified” have a four in ten chance of purchasing a helmet that does not meet the DOT safety performance standards, even though it may have a label on it that says “DOT Certified.” This percentage of failures is statistically about the same as it has been for the past several years.
- In that same period of time, 38 helmets failed to meet even the labeling requirements revised in 2013, which are intended to prevent “novelty” helmets from being labeled as compliant. The new requirements did nothing more than specify the size of the lettering, specify the layout of the label information and increase the items to be included on the label to be:
- Manufacturer’s name
- Model number or name
- “DOT” below the manufacturer’s name
- “FMVSS 218” centered below DOT
- The word “Certified” below FMVSS 218
- Out of the 73 helmets that failed to meet the performance standards since 2014, 59 (80.8 percent) resulted in investigations. Information about the outcome or status of those investigations is not on the NHTSA website that provides the information used for this analysis and was not requested.
- Since 2014, only 12 safety recalls have been triggered by helmet failures and none have been triggered since 2018 when only two resulted. This data does not include any recalls that may have been voluntarily initiated by the manufacturer itself.
What’s wrong with the DOT FMVSS 218 Standard and what can be done to improve it?
The DOT FMVSS 218 standard was established in 1974 to improve the quality of safety helmets primarily intended to be marketed for use on public roads. Displaying the “DOT Certified” label on the helmet is mandatory in the U.S. for helmets intended to be marketed for road-going use.
Initially, it was accompanied by federal highway funding rules that incentivized states to make helmet use mandatory for motorcyclists. That has since been changed and a number of states have reduced or eliminated state-level mandatory helmet laws.
Despite that, according to a recent report from the NHTSA, helmet use has steadily increased over the past decade, perhaps in response to ever-improving helmet products. That’s good news because it shows that informed consumer choice can drive positive change.
The bad news is that the DOT standards have not been updated in terms of impact attenuation since their inception. That part of the standard allows a helmet that transmits as much as 400g peak acceleration (g being “gravity constant” or an acceleration value of ft. per second x seconds) to pass the impact attenuation standard.
Other standards such as ECE 22.05 (which has upgrades coming, effective in 2023 when it becomes ECE 22.06) and FIM FRHPhe-1 and 2 require more effective impact attenuation allowing a maximum peak acceleration of only 275g depending on the test modality.
Similarly, the Snell Memorial Foundation certification, which is voluntary, allows the same maximum peak acceleration as ECE 22.05 (depending on which of its test modalities is utilized).
The M designation on the Snell Standards refers to the standards applicable to motorcycle helmets. The M2020 standards update of August 2018 to the Snell standards creates some alignment with the DOT standards and the United Nations ECE 22.05. Snell Memorial Foundation information explains it this way:
“This M2020 revision of the Snell Foundation standard for motorcycle helmets allows two distinct options: the first is a continuation of the requirements which had been set for M2010 and for M2015. It is designated M2020D indicating compatibility with DOT. It demands the premium levels of impact energy management currently required in M2015. The second incorporates modifications to the impact test requirements to accommodate the greater impact attenuation demanded by European standards. It is designated M2020R indicating compatibility with ECE Regulation 22.”
What this all means is that a DOT Certified helmet that has actually been tested and passed the impact attenuation tests will allow greater impact energy to reach the wearer’s brain than a helmet certified to ECE 22.05, FIM FRHPhe-1, and 2 or Snell Memorial Foundation M2020R standards.
That brings us to more bad news about the DOT standard. Nothing in the DOT standard actually requires the helmet to have been tested against all the standard’s performance criteria before allowing the “DOT Certified” label to be put on the helmet and for it to be placed out on the market and sold to consumers.
The regulations do not even require the manufacturer to provide test reports to NHTSA proving each helmet model type it makes for sale in the U.S. has been tested for compliance with the standards before they are allowed to sell them.
Unlike some other consumer product safety requirements, there is no provision for a “black box warning” to be affixed to any helmet that has not been tested and proven compliant. This would state, for example, “Warning—this helmet model has not been proven to meet DOT performance standards, notwithstanding compliance with the labeling requirement.”
Enforcement of the DOT standard is strictly by “post-market” testing of sample helmets specified by NHTSA to the testing contractor. As a result, discovering non-compliant or defective products is only done long after the product is already in use, putting riders at risk for both being ripped off by paying good money for a product that isn’t what the label says it is and for an injury that a compliant helmet may have prevented.
In contrast, the ECE 22.05, FIM FRHPhe, and Snell Memorial Foundation standards, for example, do not allow a helmet to be labeled as meeting those standards until after it has actually done so. For virtually any other product that has such a direct impact on consumer safety, this is the quality assurance method of choice.
It allows for design, materials, and workmanship weaknesses and defects to be identified and corrected before the product is placed into the market, preventing the paying customer from falling victim to those defects. It also has the benefit to the manufacturer of decreasing the potential for safety recalls that are costly to both the company’s bottom line and reputation.
Ideas for improvement—for helmet buyers and for regulators:
First, for helmet buyers:
A number of manufacturers offer helmets with multiple certifications that include those with higher performance requirements than DOT and that require helmets pass the performance tests before they can be labeled as compliant. That said:
- Consider helmets that not only look good, have the features you want, and offer a comfortable fit, but have achieved certification under ECE 22.05/6, FIM FRHPhe, or Snell Memorial Foundation M2020R standards.
For helmet regulators:
A cost-effective approach for updating FMVSS 218 could work like that already used by the federal government in healthcare quality oversight. 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 regulatory costs are eliminated.
Why not do the same for helmet regulations? 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, UNECE 22.06 (in 2023), FIM FRHPhe-1/2, Snell M2020 D or R, JIS T8133 2015, NBR-7471:2001 (and/or others that substantially meet or exceed FMVSS 218 performance requirements).
Updating the FMVSS 218 technical specifications could also be considered, though if deemed status was given to the more current standards, it would not necessarily have to happen. An example would be to update the impact attenuation specification from 400g to 275g peak acceleration.
Helmet buyers could go to the internet or their local dealer and buy an ECE 22.05/6 compliant, Snell Memorial Foundation approved, or FIM FRHPhe-1/2 (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 22.05/6 certification, or FRHPhe-1/2 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 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.
Another thing that could be done to update FMVSS 218 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. Assuming the vast majority of manufacturers are currently assuring their products are compliant now, simply providing the test data would not impose an administrative burden.
The DOT label could be applied only after the test reports are reviewed and the results accepted by NHTSA. Post-marketing testing as directed by NHTSA could still be used to verify continued compliance, as in the past.
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.
To be sure, there may be other options that could be used to make helmet standards and regulation more consistent, more effective, and less costly while allowing consumers greater choice. These are just a few ideas to start a conversation about how to do all that.
To have a look at the NHTSA helmet test reports that provide results for each helmet tested in detail, visit:
(A list is not provided in this article—you can see NHTSA’s list for each year, which includes brand name, model and pass/fail status as well as a link to each helmet full test report by following these instructions. Be sure to not skip step one or you won’t be able to get the helmet reports.)
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 and data analytics are those of the author and don’t necessarily represent an official position of Coram Publishing, Ultimate Motorcycling the U.S. Department of Transportation or National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If you agree improvement is in order, feel free to share the link to this article.
For more coverage on helmet safety standards and quality, see:
- DOT Certified Helmet Performance test Data Update-Failure Rate Increases
- Four out of ten DOT certified helmets failed government performance tests
- Motorcycle helmet Safety Standards 2019, FIM FRHPhe, ECE 22.05, DOT FMVSS 218 and Snell Memorial Foundation standards update
- ECE 22.06 Helmet Performance Standards set for 2023
- New University of Wisconsin Study debunks Neck Fracture Risk from Helmet use
- Motorcycle Helmet Face Shield Performance Standards Explained
- Helmet Use by U.S. Motorcyclists Trended Higher in the Past Decade