There’s always a lot of talk among riders about helmet safety, and it is inevitable in those conversations that Snell gets referenced. If you’re speaking to modular helmets specifically, the reference is usually along the lines of “Snell doesn’t test or certify modular helmets”.

But that isn’t exactly true.

In Jim’s recent review of the Bell SRT Modular helmet, he also suggested that Snell doesn’t certify modulars. Jim’s claim, specifically, was:

“The big question in my mind is: Does adding an internal sun visor lens to the SRT Modular along with a hinged chin bar really disqualify it from receiving the Snell M2015 safety rating given to the very similar SRT?

You may point to the hollow void in the EPS foam needed to house the retractable sun visor in the SRT Modular shell creating an area more prone to failure in a crash as the reason. You’d be correct as far as I can see in Snell’s refusal to certify helmets with this attractive feature in them.”

And fair enough, right? It’s not like Snell has a long-list of approved modular or helmets with internal sun visors.

But, interestingly enough, Ed Becker – Snell’s Executive Director – commented on the article and set the record straight. To quote:

Actually, Snell is ready to consider modular helmets, helmets with retractable tinted lenses and even helmets incorporating both these features. In the past, there have even been a few Snell certified modular helmets and at least one Snell certified model with a retractable sun visor. Here at Snell, we like the convenience of these features and won’t immediately turn away any helmet that comes with them. But we’re also not ready to give up any of the protective capability we demand in order to have these features.Ed Becker

That’s an interesting juxtaposition compared to the rhetoric you commonly hear thrown around when it comes to Snell and modular helmets… or helmets with integrated sun visors, for that matter.

Why Does Snell Certification Matter, Anyway?

Outside of the SNELL Memorial Foundation offices in Sacramento

Snell is, by far, the most well known third-party helmet safety standard. Sharp is another one that is getting increasingly popular, and we all know DOT/ECE, but Snell has the benefit of a 62-year history and the claim of setting the first genuine helmet standard.

If you’re a wBW reader, you probably already know this.

There is a lot of confusion in the community about the importance, and validity, of the Snell standards. Jim and I flew to the Snell International Headquarters in Sacramento, CA (article coming soon) to get the scoop on what Snell is really about, and I can say with confidence that it isn’t just a race-oriented designation, nor is it irrelevant in comparison to other standards such as DOT or ECE.

If you’re wondering why you should care about Snell certification, there are a few main points to consider:

  • The Snell M2010 and M2015 standards are more demanding of energy transference than equivalent DOT/ECE standards.
  • Snell impact and penetration tests are more comprehensive than DOT/ECE equivalents, specifically surrounding where the helmet may be tested (ECE has designated “strike” spots, whereas Snell may strike anywhere on or over the testing line that they determine… Jim is going to go deeper into that in his article).
  • The Snell standard goes deeper into the types of impacts riders may encounter (and the g-forces they represent).

High-Level: How Does Snell Test Helmets (& What Are They Looking For)?

SNELL penetration testing in action

During our tour of the Snell testing lab, Jim and I helped destroy a series of helmets in the name of answering this question (and others, too). Jim is writing his magnum opus on the journey (and what we learned), so I’ll skip the details and let Jim speak to it when his article is ready.

I’m partial to modular helmets. Right now I’m rotating through the NEXX X.Vilitur, Shoei Neotec II, and SCHUBERTH C4 Pro the most (when I’m not testing something else), but none are Snell certified. There are a few good reasons for that.

What Snell Assesses During Their Testing

Some 2,000 – 2,500 helmets go through their lab in a year, and all of them receive the same series of standardized tests. These tests evaluate:

  • Energy transfer through the shell and liner
  • Penetration resistance
  • G-Forces passed through the helmet under various drop conditions (from heights as high as 15 feet / 4.5 meters)
  • How well built and effective the chinstrap is
  • How the visor withstands impacts
  • And a lot more…

The current standard, M2015, is very stringent and is an evolution of the M2010 standard that one modular helmet did get certified for (more on that below). Unfortunately for fans of modular helmets, some of these tests leave the modular design at a disadvantage.

When it comes to why modulars don’t tend to get certified, Ed was succinct in his response:

“We would be happy to certify any helmet, modular or otherwise, that passes our tests, but we refuse to lower our standards to accommodate modular helmets. The bottom line is that they have to pass the tests.”

Where Modulars Tend to Come Up Short

If you’re a helmet designer or manufacturer, you have a larger objective for a helmet you want to build beyond simply trying to reach a certain safety designation. If a helmet wants Snell certification, it effectively has to be designed for it from day one.

The thing is, Snell helmets are generally a bit heavier and less feature-rich than their DOT or ECE counterparts.

You also have to consider the use case. Are modular helmet buyers likely to ride aggressively on back roads or via time at the track? After all, any rider serious about pushing their limits is going to wear a full-face vs. a modular. So, chances are that your buyer is going to be an average city/commuter that rides at sane speeds on public roads.

That means that if you’re a helmet designer or manufacturer, you’re probably going to want to build a modular helmet that appeals to the largest number of buyers, and those buyers want convenience, comfort, and technology (especially in premium-priced helmets).

All of those wants cause problems for Snell certification as far as modulars are concerned.

Convenience Features

Integrated sun visors, speaker/microphone systems, intercoms, LED lights, and other enhancements have made helmets more functional and enjoyable to wear.

But those same enhancements represent a liability as far as Snell certification goes.

  • Integrating the visor has to come at the expense of something.
    • The helmet gets thicker (to retain its protective liner and add the visor) or it gets thinner (to make room for the integrated sun visor); both represent a compromise.
    • The open/close mechanism has to be integrated into the helmet somewhere.
  • Integrating speakers and microphones also comes at the expense of something:
    • If speaker pockets are inlaid into the liner, the shell must either get bigger to accommodate the space, or the liner itself gets thinner to accommodate the speaker.
    • The speakers/mic and wiring could influence impact safety (COULD, not necessarily will)

Protective Liner

As mentioned above, if you’re integrating convenience features, it’s probably coming at the expense of the amount of liner used in some sections of the helmet (around the sun visor and speakers, specifically).

With a reduced liner, those areas of the helmets have worse performance than other parts of the helmet. While they will still pass DOT or ECE testing, Snell is likely to strike those areas (a strike is an impact target) to see if they pass their standards. Most helmets with these features don’t.

Hinges

A hinge mechanism for the chinbar has to go somewhere, and while they are getting a little smaller and more robust all the time, they still take up valuable real estate.

Hinge mechanisms also add a bit of weight and bulk to the helmet, as well as potentially offering reduced safety where the mechanism is mounted (compared to other parts of the helmet).

A deciding factor in Snell certification is how robust a helmet is. Namely, if it falls apart during testing, it fails. And helmets do fall apart, such as this full-face helmet that lost its visor/hinge mechanism during a drop test from 15 ft / 4.5 m.

SNELL Drop Test GIF

The odd’s aren’t great that a modular helmet’s hinge mechanism is going to survive that same impact.

Hinges are also bulky, adding weight and heft to the helmet. More often than not, manufacturers compensate for this by displacing some of the interior impact liner.

September 7, 2019 Update (w/ Snell’s Feedback)

A helmet’s face shield or modular hinge system can break apart from the helmet and still meet the Snell standard, but the helmet itself must remain intact.

Weight

Snell certified helmets, and especially M2015 helmets that aren’t using carbon fiber, tend to be a bit heavier than their DOT/ECE counterparts. Since Snell is more stringent with respect to energy transference, manufacturers generally need to use a more robust shell and a larger interior liner. These additions can increase the size and weight of the helmet.

Given that modular helmets are already heavier than their full-face cousins, few – if any – manufacturers want to make a heavier modular for the purpose of Snell certification.

But There Are Snell Approved Modular Helmets…

If we’re willing to look beyond the M2015 standard and go to the M2010/M2005 standards, you will find a couple of Snell modulars. The first one to pass Snell M2005 certification was the Zeus ZS 3000 back in 2009. Then in 2013 the LS2 FF394 met M2010 standards.

The Latest (& Last?) Snell-Approved Modular Helmet: the LS2 FF394 “Epic”

LS2 FF394 Modular Helmet

Rick reviewed the LS2 FF394 in 2013. In the review, he also outlines other helmets that passed the even older M2000 Snell certification.

The FF394 is a fine modular, by the way, that still holds up in both design and function today. If you really want a Snell certified modular, this is the best option you’ve got for now. And even then, they’re getting harder to find.

Oh, and before you think “but helmets older than 5 years shouldn’t be worn”, turns out that’s a myth too (per Snell)… but that’s an article for another time.

Come On Manufacturers- Make Me a Snell Modular!

I make this request fully knowing that my ask is challenging. It’s hard to pack luxury features into a lid while also balancing weight against safety requirements. But still… after seeing how Snell smashes, drowns, torches, shoots, and beats up helmets in the name of science and safety… I want a helmet that can survive that.

8 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Dan Hammack
    September 4, 2019
    Reply

    ECE testing is based on actual accident data, data that reveals helmet penetrations, the kind of testing Snell does to be extremely rare.

    • Avatar
      Dan Hammack
      September 5, 2019
      Reply

      I forgot to add that because Snell tests for extremely rare helmet penetrations, the criticism is that Snell approved helmets have a hard shell that causes more impact forces to the head.

      • Cameron Martel
        September 5, 2019
        Reply

        Snell did address this during our conversations. They feel contrary to ECE re: helmet “softness” and have data that reinforces their position. Now, that data comes from the invested source so what I’m not saying is that we should just run with it. However, we should certainly review the data ourselves (Jim will speak more to it) when assessing whether or not we value Snell.

        Personally, I do. The testing line difference (the lack of “strike zones”) alone makes me favor Snell vs. DOT or ECE.

      • Avatar
        Adam Zuckerman
        September 5, 2019
        Reply

        Thanks for this article.
        I think you actually raise a good point in saying that different riders need different protection. Rather than ignore that and say that Snell “refuse to lower our standards,” would a group of riders be better served by a helmet standard aligned with the facts of lower speed accidents?
        I don’t advocate Snell lowering their standard for helmets marketed to track riders, canyon carvers, and freeway commuters. But what about a standard for scooterists, Sunday country road wanderers, and those who commute in heavy traffic or on low speed roads?
        Currently, we have a pass/fail system that tells us nothing about HOW a helmet failed. We don’t have a way of differentiating between the helmets that do well in slower crashes versus the helmets that fall apart or transmit harmful forces to the wearer. A second standard could help us find well-made helmets that are adequate for certain kinds of riding, and encourage manufacturers to build quality helmets even in the lower tiers of the product line.

        Offering a second standard (not a lower standard) that was based on actual data about a different set of crash scenarios would enable us to choose a high quality helmet optimized for our weekday commutes and a different one for our weekend burnups. We could buy with assurance that an intercom system is not positioned where it might spear our skulls, and a modular chinbar won’t pop open when we need the protection. As it stands now, we have nothing but brand reputation to tell us if a helmet that failed Snell did well enough for some riding, or if it’s a deathtrap.

        • Avatar
          Darren-p
          September 6, 2019
          Reply

          any crash involving a car or stationary object, whether its a 30mph scooter or 150mph road bike , will generate huge g force impacts on a crash helmet

          I doubt modern materials are advanced enough to warrant higher or lower protection ratings
          for specific motorcycle ‘types’

      • Avatar
        John Skala
        September 6, 2019
        Reply

        Actually, the harder shell argument is invalid. Snell standards call for much better Impact Energy Management than the DOT or ECE standards.

  2. Avatar
    Paul Y
    September 4, 2019
    Reply

    What about “blowing the lid off” – that seemed to make Snell’s results less appropriate compared to ECE

    • Cameron Martel
      September 5, 2019
      Reply

      Jim will be addressing that in his article (coming very soon).

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *