Since April is Helmet Safety Month, we want to help you to check your gear and be fully prepped for the riding season.

We at J&P Cycles are here today to decode the most important things about helmets and take the WTF out of certification standards, shell materials and safety checks.

Let’s start with the basics of safety certification.  

For riders in the US, there are three main certification standards to know:  DOT, SNELL and ECE.

DOT is the only mandatory test for motorcycle helmets in the US for safety certification through NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). The manufacturer completes this certification on the honor system before putting the helmet on the market for sale.  It serves as the baseline for review criteria in the US covering the following:

  • Retention – or how the chin strap fastens and performs under stress
  • Field of vision - or how much you can see when wearing the helmet
  • Drop test – to see how energy is dissipated and absorbed
  • Penetration resistance for impacts in critical areas of the helmet

Snell is a private, non-profit organization that offers an additional certification on helmets in line with a more rigorous racing standard.  This is a voluntary and optional evaluation, not mandatory like DOT.  The main differences from DOT are:

  • More and higher drop heights
  • More penetration tests
  • Testing more specific areas like the chinbar and dome of the helmet
  • Additional testing of the face shield

ECE is the European standard and is an independent test that must be passed before helmets can be sold.   It is updated most often of all the certification standards.  It is also the most used and recognized standard worldwide.  Additional ECE testing includes:

  • Additional impact absorption testing
  • Shell rigidity and Abrasion resistance testing
  • Tension testing for the chin straps and slippage tests for the buckles
  • Optical quality of a helmet’s face shields

Next, the four main helmet shell materials are thermoplastic/polycarbonate, fiberglass, carbon fiber and Kevlar.  You will also find a mix of materials or a “composite structure” in some helmet models.  More advanced manufacturing techniques actually blend several materials and techniques to create strength, rigidity and lightweight helmets like carbon Kevlar. Different materials affect overall weight, feel and cost.  Weight is only personal preference; it has no bearing on certification.  As long as the helmet has been evaluated and rated, you know it meets the minimum safety standards.

#1 - Thermoplastic / Polycarbonate

A heated plastic that is injected into a mold and cooled to form the outer shell

  • It is hard but not very dense, offering a low profile for overall helmet shape.
  • The material flexes as it absorbs energy.
  • This is the most common material for a motorcycle helmet and is the least expensive to manufacture.

We have split this shell in half so it is really easy to see the plastic shell and foam layers.  

#2- Fiberglass

  • Fiberglass is a cloth-like structure and is a very flexible material.
  • Layers are laminated together in a mold with resin to maintain a strong, lightweight shell.
  • This is a more expensive process than molding thermoplastics.
  • Fiberglass flexes, crushes and splits as it absorbs energy, so it typically can have less energy absorbing foam padding since the shell absorbs more of the force, resulting in a lower profile helmet.
  • Fiberglass is a more sensitive structure to thermoplastic.  This brittle nature can result in being damaged or cracked more easily than thermoplastic shells.

This is a just the raw shell and you can see how they layer the fiberglass sheets in a molded shape to form the outer structure of the helmet.

#3 - Carbon Fiber

  • Carbon fiber is also a cloth-like woven structure that has an emblematic “checkerboard” look to it.
  • It is the lightest and usually most expensive material for helmet shells.
  • It is stronger than fiberglass so you don’t need as much material to create the outer shell.
  • Carbon fiber distributes energy as it absorbs force, but is the most brittle of all the materials which can result in shells shattering more easily.

#4 - Kevlar

  • Kevlar is the strongest material but is much more rigid, so it typically is used to reinforce areas in a shell where more strength is desired.
  • You will most often see this material in a composite structure where it is bonded to carbon fiber or fiberglass to offer added strength.

Lastly, let’s review how to do a “helmet safety check.” Safety Check items include reviewing the following:

  • Check the creation date of a helmet - this dictates the useful life of a motorcycle helmet.  Replacement is recommended every three to five years from the date of manufacture.
  • Is the outer shell cracked or damaged?
  • Are the straps loose, damaged or missing?
  • Is the polystyrene liner dented, damaged or missing?
  • Are the cheek pads in place, and do they still fit when the helmet is on your head?
  • Is the face shield damaged or missing (if applicable)?
  • How is the field of vision?  Make sure nothing is obstructing your full view while riding.

If any of these items from your checklist fail, it is time to buy a new lid.

Now you are fully prepared to hit the road with your noggin filled with knowledge and fully protected from J&P Cycles for great riding!

Contributed by Melvina Kleverova Zilliox