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Status Report, Vol. 46, No. 6 | July 19, 2011 Subscribe

Revamped labels to help curb sale of unsafe helmets

New labeling requirements should make it harder for vendors to sell flimsy motorcycle helmets that don't meet federal standards and easier for police to spot the noncompliant headgear on riders.

The use of novelty helmets is a growing problem, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has found. Such helmets have thin linings that can't absorb much energy and don't adequately cover the head. Often, they have weak chin straps that could come undone in a crash. NHTSA tests have shown that 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).

Despite these dangers, more and more riders are choosing novelty helmets over real ones. The percentage of motorcyclists observed using helmets meeting federal standards fell to 54 percent in 2010 from 67 percent the year before, NHTSA found. At the same time, use of noncompliant helmets rose to 14 percent from 9 percent in 2009. The increase was concentrated in jurisdictions that require all motorcyclists to wear helmets. Use of novelty helmets doubled to 22 percent in those 20 states and the District of Columbia.

Helmets that meet U.S. Department of Transportation standards can be identified by a sticker on the back with the letters "DOT." The problem is that counterfeit DOT stickers are easy to obtain, and some retailers provide them to buyers of novelty helmets.

The new labels, which will be required starting in May 2013, will have more information and so will be harder to counterfeit. They will include the word "certified," the brand name and model of helmet, and a reference to FMVSS No. 218, the DOT standard for helmets. Adding "FMVSS No. 218" to the label was something the Institute asked NHTSA to do so that counterfeiters won't be able to claim the sticker refers to any other kind of certification.

The harder-to-replicate decals likely will make it easier to enforce helmet laws. Many states with such laws specifically require helmets that meet the DOT standard. For those that don't, the updated labels may encourage them to rewrite their helmet laws to specify that DOT-compliant ones be used.

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