If one looks at the two-wheeler market today you have so many options to choose from. If you want something for your family you have the Honda Activa or Hero Splendour. For the more adventurous riders out there, you have the Triumph Tiger or the shiny new RE Interceptor 650.

And finally, to set the streets on fire, there are options like the KTM Duke 390 or the newly launched baby Duke- the Duke 125.

The sheer variety combined with the ever increasing number of vehicles and very little change in road infrastructure is as experts say, a recipe for disaster. This sadly is exactly what we are facing today. Despite awareness for it, people seem to have a very lax attitude towards their own safety when they are on a two-wheeler or a four-wheeler.  

Listed below are some of the statistics as reported by state police and transport departments

  • A total of 1.48 lakh fatalities in India (2017)

  • 35975 died due to the lack of a helmet

  • 36678 people were seriously injured due to a lack of helmet

  • These fatalities due to lack of helmet rose more than three times what was recorded in 2016.

These are alarming figures that come to around 98 deaths per year due to helmetless riding.

The seriousness of the whole issue is what sparked us to do a piece on helmet standards and the importance of helmets. In the past, we reviewed helmets by testing them extensively subjecting them to drop tests and strike tests to see how they hold up to the stress. To find out how the helmets performed read about it here.

In the process of this testing, we managed to visit many different dealers of helmets and found some interesting details which you can read about here.

Helmet and standards that the helmets conform too is a topic that gets talked about a lot of times. Bikers proudly display their helmet that carries international certifications and talks about how good they are when compared to the Indian helmet standards (ISI). But on the other end of the spectrum, all people care about are how small the helmet is so it doesn’t hurt their hairstyle or how much cheaper the helmet is then fine they will have to pay if they are caught not wearing one.

Across the world, there are many helmet standards from government enforced ones to private independent bodies. But today we will look at four of the most popular ones across the world and one standard used in India.

Now helmet safety standards are requirements and testing procedures that manufacturers must go through to make sure that the helmet can take certain damage and protect the rider. To qualify for a process there are two steps involved: firstly making sure the helmet meets all the requirements and second is for the authorities to actually test if the criteria are met.

Following are the three standards where the authorities not just lay down the criteria but also test the helmet to check if they meet them.

SNELL

SNELL is a non-profit body that works with the US government to enforce the SNELL standard and they even help manufacturers in the development and testing of their prototypes.

Now the thing about SNELL standard is it is a voluntary certification which a manufacturer can choose to be a part of. SNELL certifications are two-fold whereby they test the helmet to check if they meet the certifications. Once certified, the manufacturer can put the product into production without making any alterations.

The next step is what differentiates SNELL from most other standards as SNELL picks up random helmets from the market to re-verify them and failure of the helmet here can mean de-certification of that helmet.

SNELL helmets are tested for Peripheral Vision, Impact Absorption, Positional Stability, Dynamic Retention, Chin Bar, Shell Penetration, Face shield Penetration and even flame resistance in racing helmets.

SNELL helmets are considered amongst the best due to the stringent testing procedures and proper certification process. With the sheer amount of engineering that goes into them, SNELL certified helmets are pretty expensive.

To know more about the testing procedure of SNELL click here.
 

ECE 22.05

ECE stands for “Economic Commission for Europe,” which was created under a United Nations agreement and is followed by European Union, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Egypt, Malaysia, Montenegro, New Zealand, Moldova, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Switzerland, Macedonia and Turkey.

While in terms of testing and standards it is similar to DOT, the ECE 22.05 is better enforced. This includes batch sampling during production. To test them the manufacturer must submit 50 50 sample helmets/visors to a designated laboratory working for the government that test the helmets during their production run.

ECE 22.05 apart from the tests conducted by DOT also includes abrasion tests, visor test and more rigorous retentions strap tests.

ECE 22.05 due to that fact that it is widely used across the world and not just limited to one country has made it a respected standard that people trust. Not just that, this has led to many countries like India using the ECE standards to create their own ISI standard.
 

SHARP

SHARP (the Safety Helmet Assessment and Rating Programme) is a British government quality rating scheme for motorcycle helmets, established in 2007. This scheme awards a rating to helmets  ranging from zero stars to 5 stars based on the protection provided by the helmet.

SHARP awards the rating by procuring helmets from the market (7 for each model) and subjecting them to 32 tests that are designed to measure the protection they offer to the brain during various impacts.

According to SHARP, a 5 star rated helmet "offers good levels of protection right around the helmet." and that a 5-star rated helmet offers around 70% better protection than a 1-star rated helmet.

Read more about SHARP testing procedures here.

Next, we move onto standards that do not test the helmets themselves and rather rely on manufacturers to self-certify them.
 

DOT

DOT is short for Department of Transportation and the actual standard is referred to as FMVSS 218, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard #218, Motorcycle Helmets. This is the standard that all helmet manufacturers must comply with if they are going to sell their product in the U.S.

To put things plainly, unlike SNELL, ECE and SHARP, DOT does not test the helmets to determine if they meet the DOT certifications. Every manufacturer does their own test and self-certifies their helmet.

But we can’t really rely on manufacturers to be true to certifications right? Remember VW’s Dieselgate scandal? Well, to make sure such a thing doesn’t happen, NHTSA acquires random samples and sends them over to an independent lab which determines if the helmets actually meet the standard dor not. If a manufacturer fails to do no they are charged up to $5000 per helmet!

Given the hefty fines, you will expect manufacturers to strictly follow the standard but that's where experts argue is the biggest drawback of DOT.

Then there are other points that popular YouTuber FortNine threw light upon, like the impact testing procedures (of DOT) where manufacturers can build a helmet that's strong only in places where the impact is tested and weaker elsewhere. Furthermore, DOT is amongst the few standards which doesn’t test chin bar strength.

Even more disturbing is the fact that when the NHTSA tested DOT certified helmets in 2007 (after they were certified by the manufacturer) found that of the 40 models they picked: 13 had performance issues, 5 had to be investigated for dubious labelling and ultimately 7 had to be recalled. This effectively meant that a population of 42120 was affected which despite huge fines is no match for human life. This is further backed by historical data which proves that at least 20% of DOT certified helmet fail when it comes to safety.

To sum up, it doesn’t mean all DOT certified helmets are bad. In fact, it's up to the manufacturer to make sure they build products for the safety of the consumer and that is why many manufacturers have more than one certification like DOT and SNELL and so on. But unless a standard is strictly enforced there will always be products that are inferior in quality which sadly may be picked up by people due to its low price.

ISI

The Bureau of Indian Standards had created the ISI standard which was based on ECE 22.03 (the previously used helmet standard in the EU) and labelled it as IS 4151. This is in a way a good thing as ISI is basically based on a well established international standard.

The problem with ISI, however, is the same as DOT. While manufactures themselves test and certify the helmets we do have a strong penalty system which can penalise the manufacturer for failing to meet the standard.

Where things get shocking is when popular automotive magazine “Overdrive”  filed an RTI to find more details about helmet testing. Here’s what they found out:

  • BIS offices in Bhopal, MP, Guwahati, Assam, Durgapur, West Bengal and Nagpur and Maharashtra do not have the license/ have not tested any helmets manufactured in the market today

  • BIS Pawanoo, Himachal Pradesh is the only one who has actually tested helmets made in India

  • BIS Pawanoo tested only 5 helmets in 2017

These are even more shocking than the DOT standards and really shows the lax attitude that enforcement agencies, manufacturers and ultimately the customer has towards safety. In the RTI, the agency even disclosed that testing the helmets by the agencies is not mandatory to gain certification.

This means you are ultimately at the mercy of the manufacturer and while the situation looks grim when we did test helmets from ISI, ECE and DOT certifications we found one ISI helmet (Check our review) to perform very close to the ECE standards and managed to take stay strong despite a high-speed drop.

Moving ahead, India is going to have a newer standard similar to IS 4151 but with mandatory testing by the authorities apart from the testing that a manufacturer does. This surely is a step in the right direction but then there is another issue that crops up with it.

Of the many issues that people point to in order to skip wearing a helmet, the weight of the helmet is a major point. Thus, the members of the committee that looks into the standards have suggested reducing weights of the helmet by almost 300gms (1.2 Kg limited). This they suggest will compel people to buy helmets which are no longer heavy and uncomfortable but are light and easy to sue. They way they are hoping to achieve this is by forgoing the penetration test as it is statistically not that important.

What this means is while international established standards have helmets which weight above 1.3kg we are trying to achieve that level of protection in a much lighter shell and often at a much lower price because of a standard that is supposed to be enforced in a short time.

Furthermore, people who use ECE, DOT and SNELL certified helmets are enraged because going forward all helmets sold in India need to go through ISI testing and you don’t need to be Sherlock to know that most international certified helmets will fail the ISI certification as they weigh above 1.2Kg. Effectively rendering you strong, crash resistant helmet useless (and illegal)  in India.

This has caused a huge uproar with many knocking the doors of the authorities and filing petitions to change the weight clause in the standard. That should hopefully bring around some changes to the standards before its enforcement. Standards, after all, should benefit the consumer and not manufacturer.

To quickly sum up ISI standards and the changes in the new standard that will come to light soon:

  • IS 4151 is based on ECE standards

  • ISI helmets are tested and certified by the manufacturer themselves

  • Currently, only one BIS lab tests helmets in India as the testing is not mandatory

  • In 2017 just 5 helmets were tested in India

  • New ISI standard caps the helmet weight to 1.2kgs

  • All helmets sold in India in future must meet this weight cap or else will be deemed illegal

Verdict and Summary

There are many helmet certifying organisations some are created by the government itself and some are created by non-profit organisations. So, sometimes it may be confusing which organisation or certifications you must trust. But we have managed to simplify that for you in the five most important standards which include SNELL, SHARP, ECE, DOT and ISI.

To help you visualise the difference here is a chart that summarizes the tests done by DOT (FMVSS 218), ECE 22.05 and SNELL standards according to this paper.

Now that you are well versed in helmet standards make sure you use a good quality helmet everytime you take out your shiny two-wheeler. Also, keep watching this space for more updates on the standards and more such cool articles on the different standards we come across in our lives.