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Status Report, Vol. 50, No. 6 | July 30, 2015 Subscribe

NHTSA to crack down on unsafe motorcycle helmets

This rider is wearing a novelty helmet with a counterfeit "DOT" sticker.

Regulation helmets are vital safety gear for motorcyclists, and 19 states and the District of Columbia require all riders to wear them. Some motorcyclists may try to skirt helmet laws by donning flimsy novelty helmets that offer little-to-no protection in a crash. Others may pick novelty helmets because they don't understand the safety benefits of certified helmets. U.S. regulators over the years have tried to make it harder to pass off fake helmets as bona fide ones, but they are still on the market. Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing a series of rule changes that should make it harder for retailers to sell novelty helmets and easier for riders and police officers to distinguish between safe and unsafe ones.

Novelty helmets don't provide good head coverage, and their thin foam liners and lightweight shells can't absorb energy or adequately cushion a rider's head during a crash. They often have weak chinstraps that could come undone in a crash. Novelty helmets are marketed to motorcyclists online and sold at motorcycle outfitters alongside sturdier, well-padded regulation headgear with the proviso that they aren't meant for use on the highway or as protective equipment. A typical warning label sewn into the interior fabric lining indicates that the "novelty head wear" doesn't meet any safety standards.

Novelty helmets put riders in a crash at higher risk of a brain injury or a skull fracture than certified helmets (see Status Report special issue: motorcycles, Sept. 11, 2007). A 2009 NHTSA study of motorcyclists injured in crashes and transported to a Baltimore shock trauma center during 2007-08 showed that 56 percent of those wearing a novelty helmet had serious head injuries, compared with 19 percent of riders who were wearing a helmet certified by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

Novelty headgear vs. DOT-certified motorcycle helmet

Novelty helmet (left) vs. regulation helmet (right)

The differences between a novelty helmet (above left) and a DOT-certified motorcycle helmet (above right) are striking. The novelty helmet has thin padding and a chin strap akin to a child's toy. An interior label states that the "novelty head wear does not meet safety standards of any description." The regulation helmet has a thickly padded inner liner and sturdy chin strap.

Under the May notice of proposed rulemaking, NHTSA says it considers motorcycle helmets to be subject to federal regulation as motor vehicle equipment under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. At the same time, the agency aims to add a clear definition of "motorcycle helmet" to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 218. A helmet would qualify as a motorcycle helmet if it is manufactured or sold with the apparent purpose of protecting riders on the highway; if it is made or sold by companies that sell regulation helmets and motorcycle gear; or if the headgear is packaged and/or advertised or imported as a motorcycle helmet.

The agency also wants to amend FMVSS No. 218 to create a set of physical screening criteria to identify helmets for performance testing, streamline federal compliance tests and help law enforcement officials identify noncompliant helmets. The proposed new dimensional and compression requirements would address things such as the thickness and resilience of a helmet's liner and shell. For example, inner liners would have to be at least 0.75 inch thick, and the inner liner and shell combined would need to be at least 1 inch thick to meet FMVSS No. 218 standards.

In the case of suspect helmets on the road, police officers could easily check liner and shell dimensions with a caliper or ruler.

Most states with motorcycle helmet use laws require riders to wear DOT-certified helmets. In 2014 in states with universal helmet use laws, 89 percent of motorcyclists were observed wearing DOT-compliant helmets and 7 percent were observed wearing noncompliant helmets, NHTSA's National Occupant Protection Use Survey found. Helmet use is sharply lower in states without universal helmet laws.

NHTSA has tried to crack down on novelty helmets in the past by focusing on labeling requirements.

Regulation helmets are sold with a DOT label on the back shell. Labels required on current helmets contain the letters "DOT" and "FMVSS No. 218 certified" and include the manufacturer name and/or brand and the model designation (see "Revamped labels to help curb sale of unsafe helmets," July 19, 2011). Certified helmets made before May 13, 2013, had labels, too, but they simply contained the letters "DOT." To pass off a novelty helmet as legal, riders could buy counterfeit versions of these decals and affix them to their helmet.

The stricter labeling requirements that took effect two years ago were supposed to make it harder for motorcyclists to evade the law, but that hasn't been the case so far, NHTSA concedes.

That's because the old counterfeit DOT stickers remain in circulation, and older helmets are grandfathered under current law. The decals are easy to find on Amazon.com and other online vendors, who claim that the "replacement" labels are for helmets that are already DOT-approved. If questioned, riders can assert that their helmet predates the 2013 label change. That's where the proposed preliminary screening criteria would help.

Regulators believe that current DOT-compliant helmets will meet the new screening criteria. Allowing for advances in materials and technologies, NHTSA would provide for an alternative compliance process for manufacturers whose helmets don't comply with the proposed dimension and compression requirements but do meet FMVSS No. 218 performance requirements.

Revamped labels to help curb sale of unsafe helmets

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