DOT and Snell Motorcycle Helmets: Understanding DOT and Snell Ratings

A number of factors come into play for a rider when considering a new helmet purchase. One factor all riders must consider, and the number one reason to wear a helmet in the first place, remains safety.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2003, when comparing mile for mile, motorcycle riders faced a 32 percent greater likelihood of dying in a wreck compared to drivers in a car. In fact, the simple practice of wearing a helmet can dramatically reduce the number of road fatalities for cycle riders. The NHTSA estimates that between 1984 and 2004, nearly 11,000 motorcyclists would be alive today if they were wearing a helmet while riding.

Snell and Department of Transportation (DOT) ranking remain an industry standard by which customers can judge the safety “effectiveness” of a helmet. But what do the DOT and Snell standards mean for the average rider?

For starters, these ratings were created to offer objective criteria for certifying helmet safety. As a result, instead of relying on what a manufacturer or dealer might tell a buyer, now the buyer can identify real criteria in judging the measure of protection offered by a particular helmet.

But what testing procedures are employed in determining that criteria? Let’s begin with the DOT rating.

DOT Rating

The DOT performs a straight forward impact test. Using a simulated head placed inside a helmet, testers drop the helmet from a height of ten feet. The head cannot receive more than 400 G-force units on impact. A G-force unit measures the force of gravity exerted against an object in motion.

Now here’s the kicker with DOT rated helmets–manufacturers don’t need to test their helmets in order to claim a DOT rating! A helmet manufacturer simply needs to feel that a helmet is meeting the DOT specifications to brand it as “DOT rated.” The DOT might occasionally pull helmets to perform testing, but the majority of helmets sold as DOT certified do not undergo any level of testing.

Snell Rating

The Snell certification stands in rigorous contrast to DOT specifications. Helmet manufacturers voluntarily submit their products to the Snell evaluation service and pay for the testing procedures. These procedures are extensive and include seven test types, from impact to shell penetration tests to flame resistance testing. The type and degree of testing is dependent on the type of helmet and its application.

Snell cites the following areas as critical in helmet safety:

  • Impact management: how well the helmet protects against collisions with large objects;
  • Helmet positional stability: whether the helmet will be in place, on the head, when it’s needed;
  • Retention system strength: whether the chin straps are sufficiently strong enough to hold the helmet throughout a head impact; and
  • Extent of protection: the area of the head protected by the helmet.

Snell Memorial Foundation, Inc. ( 2005). 2005 Standard for Protective Headgear, 4.

In short, Snell offers the highest certification standards regarding helmet safety. But a buyer will pay a higher price for Snell certified helmets, as the added costs of production and testing add to the overall value of the helmet.

Safety Matters

A number of points exist in the mind of a buyer when considering a helmet purchase. Style, color, fit, and comfort are extremely important factors when purchasing a helmet. Price is also a consideration for many buyers. However, safety should be paramount when purchasing a helmet. If you scrimp too much on price, you might get a nice looking helmet that unfortunately doesn’t hold up in those critical moments. So take the time, do your homework, and find a helmet that will keep you alive and allow you to keep riding for years to come.