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DOT vs Snell Helmets: What Should You Look For?

Feb 12th 2020

If you're in the market for a new motorcycle helmet, you know there's little that's more confusing than understanding the different helmet testing standards. They all affect the safety rating of different helmets, but how?

The two best-known kinds of safety ratings are Snell and DOT. But how are they different and what do their different safety ratings mean? It used to be said that DOT helmets were shock-resistant but Snell helmets were shock-resistant.

But things have changed and rules and regulations have changed along with them. So is that still the case? In this article, we'll take a look at Snell helmets vs DOT helmets and break down what you should really look for to protect your head in the event of a motorcycle crash.

What Exactly is in a Motorcycle Helmet?

In order to understand more about the testing processes and the different standards in place, it's important that you understand what is in a helmet.

Modern, full-face helmets are the best kinds a rider can wear. They have to main parts that consist of the outer shell and the inner liner.

The inner liner is designed to absorb the energy and is made of expanded polystyrene or EPS. This is what makes up beer coolers, foam coffee cups, and packaging material.

Outer shells come in two different categories: a resin composite like fiberglass, carbon fiber, and Kevlar, or molded thermoplastic like ABS or polycarbonate.

The shell is designed to protect against the sharp stuff that can penetrate. It also protects against abrasion for when a rider slides across the road.

Riders tend to look at the outer shell first, but it's actually the inner liner that protects your brain in the event of a crash.

When your helmet hits the road, the outer shell stops. But your head keeps on moving just like Newton predicted it would. When it hits the inner liner, the liner starts to try and bring the head to stop gently.

Testing Process

First, let's take a look at how the different ratings test the helmets. This is the first place you should look to see what the main differences are.

Both Snell and DOT tests involve dropping a dummy head inside a helmet against differently shaped anvils. These heads are marked with sensors to determine the point of impact and to calculate other important measurements.

The anvils are flat, hemisphere, curbstone, roll bar, and wedge-shaped. They drop this dummy head at various high speeds to measure the different g-forces involved in unique crashes.

Testers repeat these tests, also known as impact tests, over and over again to see how well the helmet holds up against impact to the same area.

Both of these systems also have retention tests. This involves understanding how long the helmets can stay on a rider's head in the event of a crash. They both use the roll-off test, which is a test where they try to take the helmet off the head by rolling it off with a weight.

There's also a penetration test involved. They measure how much each helmet can resist piercing. They drop a 10-ounce weight from 9.8 feet, and if the weight hits the head through the helmet, it fails.

So far, they both seem pretty similar, right? So where are the differences?

There are some tests that Snell does in addition to these that make their standards different from DOT.

What's Different?

First, the Snell helmet standard includes a dynamic retention test in addition to the roll-off test. Here, they use falling weights to test whether or not a helmet will pop off of a rider's head when met with downward force.

Snell also does a chin bar test for full-face helmets and that sees them dropping 11 pounds of weight onto the chin bar from certain heights and measuring anything that happens to the chin bar.

Snell tests face shields by shooting at them with lead pellets from an air rifle and if the pellets make it through the shied or cause any kind of deformation, the helmet fails.

Impact Analysis

Both of these standards use accelerometers to figure out how fast the helmet stops moving during the impact test as well. But their standards are different here.

The DOT allows for up to 400Gs of peak acceleration while the Snell standards only allow up to 275Gs.

Standard Enforcement

DOT has run into the issue of counterfeit labeling in the past. And because the National Highway Safety Administration requires at least the DOT test on motorcycles, they don't test the helmets themselves.

Instead, that falls on the manufacturer. But they can just self-certify without actually running these tests. DOT has tried to make the look of their label more standard to combat this.

There is a $5,000 fine for any helmet sold that doesn't meet requirements, but the NHTSA only tests random samples, so it's not like the enforcement of those rules is very reliable.

The Snell standard, however, is much different. Manufacturers like Bell submit voluntarily to prove how safe their helmets are. Snell technicians complete the tests at their labs.

In addition to this, Snell buys samples from different manufacturers to test.

So Which is Better?

This is actually a pretty debated question. Some people claim that the DOT standards are too lax and that they run off of an honor system that allows manufacturers to take advantage of them. But others say that the Snell test is so different that it's not even valid.

There are also people in an entirely different camp of ideas that say that controlled testing isn't even important, because that's no indication of how a helmet will hold up in the event of a real-life crash.

Regardless, testing is important to find out how safe a helmet could potentially be. Snell holds the most extensive standard, and for the most part lets you know that you are getting a safer helmet.

The Debate

There is actually a pretty significant debate surrounding how stiff and strong a helmet needs to be in order to provide the rider with the best protection.

This is because if a helmet is too stiff, it can actually cause brain injury instead of protecting against it during the most common types of crashes. And if it's too soft, it's not going to protect you in a high-energy crash.

It's almost impossible to say what is perfect for helmets because crashes are accidents, you cant predict when they'll happen or what they'll be like. You just have to guess.

These tests have brought about a lot of change in helmet development over the years, but are they applicable on the street?

Two Hits?

Motorcycle crashes almost never result in the rider hitting their helmet in the same place twice. But the Snell testing has just continued to become more rigorous, using a higher and higher amount of weight, in their two-time drop tests.

By doing this, they've kind of compromised on the helmet's ability to take a single hit and properly absorb impact.

What To Look For

So, with all of this information at hand, what exactly should you look for in a motorcycle helmet?

You want to pick your helmet based on the features you want, the price point, and whether or not they meet the DOT standard. If you're interested in the Snell standard as well, there are plenty of helmets out there that meet both.

There are also helmets with safety stickers from the ECE22.05, which is a U.N. organization that sets the level of helmet protection in Europe. These helmets are supposed to be very safe as well.

Your helmet needs to fit your head properly, this is one of the most important parts of safety in the event of an accident. It has to fit well and be made for your specific head shape.

Snell Helmets vs DOT Helmets

At the end of the day, if you can successfully predict the exact kind of crash you're going to have, we could tell you which safety rating is best. Unfortunately, that's just not possible. The issue of motorcycle helmet safety is a complicated one, and you need to come to a conclusion about who you trust on your own.

You have to pick a helmet that is designed for your head. A cheap DOT certified helmet that fits your head the right way is going to protect you a lot better than expensive Snell helmets that just don't fit.

Those are the basics of helmet safety standards. If you want some help picking out the right helmet for you, don't hesitate to contact us today!