The Department of Transportation (DOT) has stern conditions manufacturers of motorcycle helmets must meet.
They concern a motorcycle helmet’s field of vision, retention process, resistance to penetration, and safety labeling.
The thoroughly documented DOT testing procedure is one of the most uncompromising in the world, as far as impact tests go, but do motorcycle helmets have to be DOT approved? Let’s find out.
Here’s the Short Answer to Whether Motorcycle Helmets Have to Be DOT Approved:
Helmet laws vary from state to state in the U.S. Still, for states requiring riders to wear helmets, the DOT standard of testing is the base model a helmet must meet to be legally defined as a functional motorcycle helmet, as anything unapproved by the DOT is considered unsafe.
What Exactly Are the Laws Around DOT Approved Helmets?
The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires that all motorcycle helmets purchasable in the U.S. meet what they’ve called the FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard) 218. Whether a rider has to wear a DOT approved helmet varies from state to state.
This national safety law sets the standard a helmet has to meet to be considered effective at preventing head and brain injury in the event of a motorcycle collision.
To enforce this law, DOT orders extensive tests to be performed on helmets from any international manufacturer who intends to sell helmets in the United States, whether in retail stores or online.
Helmets are a crucial part of motorcycle safety gear, probably the most crucial.
Helmets are such a big contributor to the statistical survival rate of motorcycle riders who’ve been involved in a crash that many states have passed laws that require motorcycle riders to wear DOT-approved helmets while on their bike.
In any state with a law like this, wearing a non-DOT approved helmet is the same as not wearing a helmet at all, and the rider is considered in violation.
There are more non-DOT approved helmets out there on the street than you may think. These unsafe “novelty” helmets might be worn mistakenly, just as often as they’re worn with intention, as a fashion statement.
Conditions Helmets Must Meet to Be DOT Approved
To help you keep an eye out for these unsafe helmets, here’s a list of DOT considerations in my words, straight from a government brochure available at one.nhtsa.gov:
Inside of Helmet Has a Thick Liner
To meet the minimum requirements set by the DOT standard, a helmet has to have a layer of polystyrene foam that’s dense and one-inch thick. You might not be able to see it beneath the pads, but you’ll be able to feel it if it’s there; if all your helmet has is padding and not a thick layer of foam, I’m afraid it’s not DOT approved.
Sturdy Chin Straps and Rivets
To meet the DOT standards, a motorcycle helmet has to have a strong chinstrap reinforced by rock-solid rivets.
While the specific weight requirement varies from style to style, generally, a DOT-approved helmet weighs at least three pounds. If a helmet weighs a pound or even less, chances are it’s a novelty helmet, and it isn’t DOT approved.
Helmet Style or Design
According to DOT standards, anything that protrudes more than 2/10 of an inch from the helmet’s surface is unsafe. If your helmet has decorations or accessories like spikes and mohawks that stick up inches from the helmet, it’s likely not a proper DOT motorcycle helmet.
DOT Label Sticker
In addition to the sturdy weight, robust chinstraps, and safe and functional design and build, a DOT standard helmet will have a sticker label on the back of the helmet. The sticker will say “DOT” to let the buyer know the helmet has indeed been designed to meet the FMVSS 218 requirements.
If the helmet doesn’t have a sticker, it’s probably a novelty helmet. Some novelty brands will even include an allusive DOT sticker for the customer to put on themselves. If the sticker isn’t already on the helmet, it isn’t a legitimate DOT-certified label.
Manufacturer’s DOT Label
FMVSS 218 requires any manufacturer attempting to sell helmets inside the U.S. to fit a label inside (or sometimes outside) the helmet that clearly reads the manufacturer’s name, the helmet model, the size of the helmet, the month and year the helmet was built, and the materials from which it was constructed.
Very few novelty helmet companies go through the process of fitting their helmets with this extensive labeling, making it a good clue to whether or not your helmet is legit.
We want to reiterate that fake DOT stickers are available on novelty helmets to pass them off as DOT approved. We’re not here to condone or condemn these sketchy marketing techniques; our focus is providing the facts to decide for yourself what to wear when riding.
That said, the DOT standard exists to ensure helmets can do what their manufacturers claim they do, and the best way to ensure your helmet does the job is to look for the same features the DOT considers to approve a helmet.
In addition to the labeling standard, those features include the helmet’s style, weight, a sturdy chin strap attached via rivets, and a thick layer of polystyrene foam somewhere between the pads and the outer layer of the helmet.
Does the DOT Test Helmets Themselves?
The Department of Transportation (DOT) is one of the few standard agencies in the world that doesn’t do its own testing. The DOT hires independent contractors at random to conduct impact and vision tests.
Random, independent testing is done to keep safety and transparency a priority for manufacturers, whose knowledge that the DOT may test them at any point keeps them transparent, honest, and under the gun about putting safety first.
What Happens if You Drive With a Non DOT-Approved Helmet?
Helmet laws in the U.S. vary from state to state; if you live in a state that requires motorcyclists to wear a helmet while riding, the legal definition of a helmet is an authentic, DOT-spec helmet. Wearing a novelty helmet in such a state is a violation of state law.
Since they vary across the country, motorcycle helmet laws can bounce you all over the place. And if you plan on crossing state lines, you might find a whole new set of laws waiting for you on the other side.
For example, if you’re a city-hopper, you’ll find exactly what we mentioned above during your trip from Philly to Brooklyn.
In Pennsylvania, a rider and passenger over the age of 21 don’t have to wear a DOT-approved helmet if they’ve been riding for over two years, having completed the state-certified motorcycle safety course. Once you cross that state boundary into New York, though, every rider and passenger has to wear a DOT helmet regardless of age, training, or riding experience.
Failure to comply with New York State law will get you a ticket.
The surest way around an unintentional state-helmet-law-violation is to wear a DOT-approved helmet all the time. Not to mention, it’s the healthier choice for your safety too.
Cross-country rippers like myself tend to lose track of the jumbled, shifting state laws, so I keep my DOT-approved helmet on my head at all times.
A quick review of the helmet laws in the U.S.:
- Federal Regulations define a motorcycle helmet as unsafe until it meets the safety requirement standards set forth by the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Motorcycle Vehicle Safety Standards 218.
- State Helmet Laws change from state to state, as the federal government allows states to write their own laws regarding whether or not motorcyclists must wear a helmet. When traveling, you must adhere to the laws of the state you are in, no matter the laws of the state you’re from. If you’re in a state that requires a helmet to be worn, it must be a helmet that meets the standards of the DOT FMMVSS 218.
Can I Trust That My Helmet Actually Is DOT Approved?
Only a helmet with a DOT sticker already on the outside of the helmet, with an internal DOT label, meets the standards. Some “novelty” helmet brands will provide “novelty” DOT stickers for riders to put on themselves; this is misleading.
That said, as we mentioned earlier, the DOT doesn’t test their helmets themselves. The DOT hires independent contractors to conduct surprise safety tests on helmets from all manufacturers who sell helmets in the U.S.—an incentive for the manufacturers to continue to meet the DOT standards.
DOT helmet standards are strict, and the impact testing they conduct is as rigorous, if not more than any other agency in the world.
Helmets designed to meet DOT standards are built to protect head and brain injuries during myriad types of motorcycle collisions.
They’re tested under conditions that mock an impact of 250 times the force of gravity with a focus on ensuring that DOT-approved helmets absorb rather than resist the force of collision impact.
Rigorous testing, high standards, and the fact that a DOT-approved helmet saved my life once ensure that I can trust that a helmet bought from a known and trusted brand is safe and DOT approved.
Are All DOT Helmets Safe?
While some DOT-approved helmets are safer than others depending on make, model, style, design, quality, and price range, strict DOT standards ensure that a helmet has to reach a high level of safety before it’s considered to be DOT approved.
The DOT holds helmet manufacturers liable for testing their helmets before they can sell them in the U.S., regardless of where the manufacturer is based. These worldwide helmet-makers have to take what they learned from their rigorous testing and refine their helmet products until they meet local American standards.
These tests push the helmet’s construction to its limit by testing the field of vision, penetration resistance, and the helmet’s retention system.
Then, they hire independent contractors to go out and buy helmets at random and test them for quality control to ensure they meet the DOT regulations. That said, not every single helmet is tested. The design itself has to pass a test, but they obviously can’t put each helmet through the wringer before they sell it.
The fact that a helmet’s test score is either a pass or a fail implies that some helmets perform better and are safer than others. Still, a DOT-rated helmet is your best bet in preventing head injuries and brain damage during a motorcycle accident. The testing prescribed uses drop-tests and penetration tests before assessing the shell damage of a high g-force impact.
Can I Remove the DOT Sticker From My Helmet?
You can remove the outer sticker as long as you can show your helmet is DOT approved with an internal DOT label or sticker.
That said, there have been cases where an officer who, unconvinced by the internal label, has issued a fine for riders with DOT approved stickers in states where riding without a DOT helmet is illegal; we suggest leaving the DOT sticker both inside and outside.
Is a Kevlar Helmet DOT Approved?
Not only is a Kevlar helmet not DOT approved for motorcycle safety regardless of whether it’s a military issue, a kevlar helmet isn’t aerodynamic or designed to be worn at high speeds and is therefore not only inefficient for motorcycle use but unsafe.