When it comes to protecting our own heads, we want the best that our budget can afford. But in a market flooded with diverse options and brands, it is hard to discern what actually is best.
This is where safety certificates enter the fray. Almost all nations have their own certification system, but there are only a handful of standards that are utilitarian. Among the good ones, there are four that dominate the market. Here is a quick summary of those four, as well a summary of their testing standards, pros and cons.
The bare minimum: DOT
The Department of Transport (DOT) is the US executive department for most vehicles. For our purposes, they are the ones responsible for American helmet safety certification.
To get certified by DOT, helmets need to meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218, typically printed on the back of the helmet as FMVSS 218. Helmets meeting this standard can absorb a significant amount of blunt force impact, are resistant against impact penetration and come with straps that keep the helmet firmly on your head in the event you get yourself in an accident and are thrown off a bike.
Although DOT rated helmets offer a decent amount of protection, they have their limitations. The origin of the FMVSS 218 dates back to 1974, making it quite outdated in many aspects. For example, DOT does not test helmet face shields, nor do they evaluate them for roll-offs. Also, many of its testing criteria, such as 400G shock-absorbing testing, is too much, as most modern research agrees it should be around 290G.
Finally, the biggest issue with FMVSS 218 is that it requires manufacturers to perform their own test and certification exercises. This method of "self-governance" is ripe for abuse, as it became obvious in 2006, when the government tested 40 random helmets and found 14 to be "questionable" and five falsely labelled.
That said, the level of protection DOT helmets do offer is adequate for most scenarios in Bangladesh. In fact, the author writing this article can personally vouch for its effectiveness. A few years back, I was thrown off my bike after the front wheel got bogged down in mud. Although I ended up with a cracked visor and a shattered right wrist, I was able to walk away with an intact head thanks to my DOT certified Bell Qualifier. So I can vouch with my own life when I say, if you cannot afford anything else, at least get a helmet with DOT certification.
Split personality: Snell
Established in 1957 after the tragic death of William "Pete" Snell in a motorsport accident, the Snell Memorial Foundation is a US-based non-profit organisation committed to making better crash helmets.
Traditionally, Snell was the benchmark for professional-grade helmets. Many tracks specifically require their riders to have a Snell certified helmet, putting it above DOT in terms of quality. Snell's testing method is in-house and extensive, covering everything DOT requires while also testing chin bar strength, face shield strength, rolloffs and other categories. Snell also routinely updates their testing standards, resulting in multiple revisions such as M2000, M2010, M2015, M2020D and M2020R.
However, the last two updates have thrown the reputation of Snell into murky waters.
Snell certification requires a hard helmet designed to withstand powerful impact on the same spot at least twice. This, while being useful inside a race car on a race track, proved to be quite dangerous for regular road use, as accidents on those tend to result in moderate head impact all over the helmets multiple times. Wearing hard helmets in the latter scenarios can lead to diffuse brain injuries, which is counterintuitive to a helmet's purpose.
To prevent getting cut off from the European market, which demands softer shells, Snell had to adopt two different standards; "D" denoted helmets conform to their traditional testing methods, while "R" helmets use a softer shell and are designed for motorist use. Unless you like to take your bike to our non-existent tracks for racing, "R" is what you should go for.
Although, I personally believe that you are much better off getting a helmet certified by the folks who forced Snell to adopt the "R", namely ECE and FIM.
Best overall: ECE
Short for the Economic Commission for Europe, their Regulation No.22, amendment 05 is the helmet safety regulation all helmet makers must follow if they want to sell their buckets in the European market. Currently, it is the most widely respected and used regulation in the world and is endorsed and used by many countries outside of Europe, for good reasons.
In addition to doing all the tests Snell and DOT do, ECE goes the extra mile and tests the helmet shell for initial impact, rigidity, and friction. They also perform extreme tests that include subjecting helmets to solvents, low and high temperatures, ultraviolet, humidity and moisture. Visors are separately tested for scratch and abrasion resistance, refraction, light transmission, opening angle, defects and field of vision. Miscellaneous items such as visor anti-fog and safety stickers reflectiveness are also assessed.
Finally, the ECE testing is frequent and thorough. ECE takes large numbers of helmets from its first production batch to test and also does continuous testing throughout the helmets' life cycle.
ECE 22.05 is set to be phased out in 2024, in favour of the new and improved ECE 22.06. If you are looking for the best helmet to keep your head on your shoulders, get yourself an ECE certified bucket.
In many ways, FIM is what Snell used to be. The Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) or the "International Motorcycling Federation'' is the world body that sanctions global professional motorcycle racing. Meeting the FIM homologation rules is extremely hard for helmet manufacturers, as not only FIM tests the helmets' performance in linear impacts but it also looks at how the shell and foam perform in oblique impacts when the force of the impact is distributed unevenly. Their rigorous testing standards also have the rest of the industry on the back foot, their stringent phase 2 rule controls the very limit of what the labs can test and the very limit of what the helmet makers can produce.
Unfortunately, all that excellence does not come cheap. Even a "low-end" FIM costs around Tk50,000, with the average going well over Tk100,000. And while the protection provided by FIM homologated helmets is the best the money can buy, they are kind of an overkill for everything except track racing which averages 200 miles per hour. Making them more of a status symbol for daily use, albeit a very capable one.
Another mention worthy safety standard that can be found in the local premium helmet market is SHARP. The Safety Helmet Assessment and Rating Programme is the British government quality rating scheme for motorcycle helmets, roughly analogous to US DOT and Indian ISI. And while their testing methods are far superior to either of those, their tests are focused only on the British roads and conditions and do not translate too well for the rest of the world.
MIPS on the other hand is lesser known but much more important. The Multi-directional Impact Protection System is the result of over two decades of studying how the brain responds to crash scenarios and developing a system to help mitigate damage. Essentially an add-on for helmets, the MIPS a low-friction insert within the helmet that allows the head to rotate 10-15mm relative to the helmet itself. This movement reduces rotational energy to the brain, significantly reducing brain trauma and other damages in the event of a crash.