If you’re first time helmet shopping or thinking of upgrading your helmet, you may find a lot of information about SNELL and ECE 22.05 safety ratings.
If you’re finding it difficult to make sense of these letters, sit back and relax while we explain everything you need to know about SNELL and ECE helmet ratings.
What Is the Difference Between SNELL and ECE?
SNELL is an American helmet safety foundation started in 1957 that tests over 3,000 helmets per year. The helmets are rigorously tested and must meet SNELL criteria to be considered a safe helmet.
ECE is a mandatory safety standard in Europe that is now used in several countries outside of the EU, including the United States. Like SNELL, helmet manufacturers must submit and pass rigorous testing in order to achieve ECE certification.
What Are the Safety Ratings of Helmets?
Let’s go over the three different ones:
DOT is the most common safety rating of helmets in the US. DOT stands for Department of Transportation and has been around since 1967. In 1970, DOT developed a subdivision called The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It’s this administration that issued the most basic safety rating for helmets – FMVSS No. 218. We know this seal of safety approval as the DOT sticker on the back of our helmets.
The DOT approved sticker has been used since 1974 but only recently, in 2013, did it become mandatory for all helmets sold in the US to be sold with the DOT sticker in efforts to reduce the number of novelty helmets being worn by motorcyclists.
In 1956, amateur racecar driver William Snell tragically died during a race event due to fatal head trauma. Over the next year, friends and family of Snell formed an organization called The Snell Memorial Foundation. We know it today as The Snell Foundation.
Snell Foundation’s sole purpose was to improve the safety of helmets to keep racers safe. Since 1957, Snell has set the gold standard for helmet safety and is recognized worldwide, updating their standards every five years.
The Economic Commission for Europe, or ECE, is basically the DOT of Europe. Like the DOT, the ECE set the threshold for minimum safety requirement of helmets in the EU. However, even though it’s a minimal safety standard, it is used in over 50 countries and rising in popularity among manufacturers.
ECE came up with a set of helmet safety standards in 1982, referring to them as ECE 22.02. ECE 22 has undergone a few updates since then and is currently referred to as ECE 22.05.
DOT Tests Explained in Easy Terms
The Department of Transport began requiring helmet manufacturers to test their helmets against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s test procedures called FMVSS No. 218.
This test is only required in the U.S. and requires that manufacturers perform a handful of tests on helmets that include:
- Peripheral Vision: This tests the field of vision of a rider in the helmet. DOT requires that the rider should be able to see 105° from left to right.
- Impact Resistance: This is the test where lab scientists drop a heavy anvil onto the helmet to see how well it holds up and if the helmet absorbs energy.
- Penetration Resistance: In this test, scientists guide a “striker” to free fall on to the helmet. If the striker contacts the headform inside the helmet, it fails the test.
- Retention System: The durability of the chin straps and closure system is checked by applying 50lbs – 300lbs of pressure over a 120-second time span. The straps should remain attached and not move more than 10mm.
The DOT requires that the helmets be tested multiple times and at different temperatures. For example, the helmets must be kept at a minimum of 69ºF, 122ºF, 14ºF and 77ºF (under water) prior to testing.
These tests seem pretty valid and necessary, but the biggest problem critics have with FMVSS No.218 is that it is a self-administered test.
This means that you could start a helmet company and sell it with the DOT sticker without having ever tested the helmet.
To prevent fraudulence, DOT performs random checks by purchasing helmets from retailers and then tests them against FMVSS No.218 lab procedures. If a helmet manufacturer is found to be marketing their helmet as DOT approved but does not pass their test, the manufacturer could face hefty fines, and the helmets may be pulled off shelves.
DOT is also criticized because the tests performed are very minimal. The standards are easy for manufacturers to reach and the procedures themselves do not reflect real-life crash scenarios.
For example, the impact and penetration test is tested in the same spot as opposed to being tested in multiple spots since motorcyclists are likely to hit multiple points of their head in a collision.
SNELL Tests Explained in Easy Terms
Not unlike the DOT, SNELL test multiple elements of helmets, including conditioning, impact, and penetration. SNELL differs from DOT and even ECE by taking things a step further.
Snell also tests:
- Position stability: This test ensures the helmet will stay in place while in motion.
- Face shield penetration: The face shield of a full-face helmet is tested in three different spots for penetration resistance.
- Chin bar integrity: The chin bar is tested to see how much force it can bear and to ensure that there are no components that might injure the rider.
- Removability: SNELL checks for alternative ways to remove a helmet from an unconscious rider without using the chin straps (quick-release cheek pads).
- Disassembly: After the helmet has undergone all testing, it is disassembled to make sure the manufacturer isn’t hiding anything that could compromise the rider’s safety.
Not only does SNELL test more elements of the helmet but also raises the bar to meet certifications. The helmet must withstand harder impacts in order to pass.
This type of testing requires the helmets to be harder and tougher to obtain certifications, which causes controversy. Critics of SNELL believe that the testing is not realistic to a motorcycle crash. Most crashes happen at low speeds and put the helmet through multiple, soft impacts.
SNELL’s tests are diligent but may be better suited to racers crashing at high speeds than the average motorcyclist.
ECE Tests Explained in Easy Terms
As we stated earlier, ECE safety standard is Europe’s version of the DOT.
The two ratings are both the minimal standard for helmet safety in their respective regions and the rating is fairly easy for helmets to achieve.
However, unlike the DOT, ECE 22.05 is not self regulated. Manufacturers must send in sample helmets to ECE for safety approval.
ECE 22.05 testing is also a bit more thorough than the DOT’s. They test the typical elements like impact and retention, as well as the visor (like SNELL), but they also measure:
- Projection and surface friction: This tests the force of projections that may cause rotation and friction on the outside surface of the helmet
- Rigidity: In this test, scientists take two plates on either side of the helmet and apply large amounts of pressure against the helmet. The goal is to have the helmet withstand 630 N (Newtons) of force.
- Micro slip of chin strap: The straps should not slip more than 10mm while under pressure. The test also checks the durability of quick release.
Furthermore, ECE is also different by testing different spots of the helmet during one test. For example, when SNELL or DOT perform an impact test, they test the same spot among four different sample helmets. ECE tests several different spots on the same helmet. They believe this is a more realistic representation of a motorcycle crash.
However, SNELL, ECE’s biggest critic, believes that ECE’s tests are not rigorous enough and are inferior to their testing methods.
SNELL VS. ECE – An age old rivalry
SNELL has earned its reputation over the last six decades and has existed peacefully among other safety organizations. However, it seems inevitable that one organization would eventually begin to challenge SNELL.
That organization is ECE, and a rivalry has emerged.
SNELL and ECE’s rivalry has even begun to change the helmet industry. Many companies are switching to ECE over SNELL and creating helmets that are softer. These softer helmets are designed to take multiple small hits as opposed to one that is designed to take one big hit.
The president of SNELL even wrote a letter to the president of International Motorcycling Federation to say
“The industry can reasonably meet either standard but not both.”
-Daniel J. Thomas, M.D., M.P.H.
President, Snell Foundation Board of Directors
It will be interesting to see the outcome of this rivalry in years to come. If more helmet manufacturers side with ECE, helmets may become softer and even invalidate SNELL. If Snell wants to remain relevant, they may have to consider changing their testing standards to align more with manufacturers.
Is ECE Actually Better than SNELL?
ECE and SNELL both have their advantages and drawbacks. ECE’s testing aims to mimic real life crash scenarios while SNELL wants your head to be protected in a worse case scenario situation.
The truth is, you shouldn’t get too caught up in safety ratings. If safety is your concern, research helmet companies and their philosophy of helmet safety.
Arai helmets are arguably the safest helmets on the market. They were founded on the idea of keeping heads safe and have also held the gold standard for safety.
Every piece of an Arai helmet has been thoughtfully designed and has a specific purpose. It’s no surprise that Arai trust SNELL to rate their helmets, but even without the SNELL certification, the helmet would speak for itself as far as safety is concerned.
On the flip side, ICON helmets are a popular helmet known for their flashy graphics and innovative designs. Their target demographic are urbanites who want to make a statement with their bike. While safety is on ICON’s agenda, so is aesthetics.
Some elements of ICON helmets have no purpose other than to look cool-and that’s ok. To meet budget and reputation standards, ICON submits their helmets to ECE for safety testing.
Both of these companies are highly reputable and make safe helmets, but their philosophy and demographics are on two ends of the spectrum.
Once you’ve found a helmet that you like, don’t let the ECE or SNELL certification be a deal breaker. Just make sure your prospective helmet has at least one other safety rating.
As we stated in the beginning of the article, the DOT helmet rating is self-certified.
Having an additional safety certification ensures that your helmet has endured rigorous testing to keep your head as safe as possible.