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Frequently Asked Questions about Snell and Helmets

About Snell Foundation

Who/What is Snell?

William "Pete" Snell was an amateur auto racer. He died needlessly in a racing event in 1956 when his then state-of- the-art helmet utterly failed to protect him. In memory of Pete, a number of his friends, colleagues and fellow racers including Dr. George Snively, formed the Snell Memorial Foundation to try to improve helmet design and capabilities, and to encourage the development and use of truly protective helmets.

 Why does Snell make my racing association upgrade to the newest Snell Standards?

 Each association and/or track has the responsibility for the safety of its members or participants, which generally creates a unique set of issues that must be dealt with, and rules to be set accordingly. Snell recommends the latest Snell Standards to all consumers who need head protection.

How much does Snell certification cost and who pays?

Snell-direct-cost is only a small part of cost related to making Snell certified helmets. Once a helmet has been accepted into the Snell certification program, the Foundation charges the manufacturer for test fees, acquisition cost of random samples, and for each Snell Certification label that goes into each certified helmet. The majority of the cost is what a manufacturer must invest in a good quality system in terms of hardware, equipment, and personnel to maintain the consistency and reliability of producing good helmets. However, these costs along with every other production cost get passed along to you the consumer.

What does Snell do with the money?

The Foundation spends the biggest part of its income on operating the certification and testing programs. There are all of the standard operating costs such as rents and staff, as well as maintenance on its test facility in California, equipment repair and replacement, and all the other expenses associated with operating a non-profit business. The rest goes to the Foundation's extensive educational programs and research projects.

Snell Helmet Certification

Why wear Snell-certified helmets?

The protective capability of a particular helmet is difficult to measure. One can quickly judge a helmet for style and price and with only a little effort for fit and comfort as well.  It is much more difficult to gauge what a helmet can do when someone's skill, experience and every other precaution have failed, when his helmet is the only thing between his head and a violent collision. The Snell Foundation knows. We destroy thousands of helmets every year to find out. Snell Certification is our assurance that a helmet has measured up to the highest standards for protective performance time and again.

Why Snell certification and not some other assurance?

Snell Standards are the most demanding. They are set to levels of protective performance that only the best, most protective headgear will meet. But Snell Certification is more than high standards, it is testing. Helmets must first pass Snell certification testing by Snell technicians in Snell labs to qualify for Snell programs. Then samples of these helmets regularly acquired directly from retailers and distributors must continue to pass test requirements in order to remain in the Snell programs. Snell Certification is your best assurance that your helmet will perform its most important function: save your life when all your judgment, skill and luck have failed to keep you from harm.

Why do Snell-certified helmets cost more?

Snell certified helmets are available in almost every price range. Other features such as style and comfort are also important in determining helmet price. However, building consistently protective performance into a helmet does cost money. The costs are in the design and development, the materials and, most of all, in quality control. Snell certification is your best assurance that the manufacturer has made, and continues to make this investment in your safety.

"So, why aren't all helmets certified by Snell?"

The Snell Standards are voluntary. Some helmet manufacturers do not believe that they need Snell to demonstrate that their products are among the best protective headgear. Others believe that they need only to produce helmets that meet Government or consensus helmet standards and some try and just cannot make the grade. A very few helmet makers are truly inconsiderate of the consequences of making an inferior safety product (they are not usually around very long).

Why won't Snell certify some types of helmets like flip up front designs?

Snell does not dismiss out of hand any helmet design that strays from the conventional.  Snell does not point out any design specifications other than general requirements in its standards.  We are, however, always concerned with innovations and new designs that may affect helmet's ability to protect the wearer, or in some cases helmet's potential to cause injury.  At present the Foundation has not had the opportunity to test any of the flip up front type helmets for certification.  We do not find any fault with these designs as long as they are used according to the manufacturer’s instructions and meet all of the requirements of the standard.  We will also certify any size of helmet as long as it meets the same requirements as any other Snell certified helmet.

What's the difference between a $100 Snell certified helmet and a $400 Snell certified helmet?

While helmets are primarily a protective device, the true protective capabilities of a helmet, if needed will only come into play for about 2 to 4 milliseconds during the lifetime of the helmet. This leaves a lot of time for that helmet to be doing nothing more than sitting around on a user's head.  Producing a product that meets the standards is not really very difficult.  Producing a helmet that people will buy and wear, and will consistently meet the standards is significantly more difficult.   The Snell Standards do not measure factors like comfort, ventilation, brand recognition or style, and only indirectly look at fit, weight, materials and workmanship. These are factors that frequently drive helmet cost.

Where's the Snell label located?

There are two forms of the Snell serialized label.  The most common is the adhesive label, but there is also a cloth type for the M, SA and RS standards. The adhesive label, or decal is usually affixed somewhere on the inside of the helmet.  If it is not readily visible, check underneath the flaps of the comfort padding. The cloth type labels a generally sewn onto the chin strap and folded over.  If a thorough search fails to turn up a decal, then regardless of any claims or advertisements, your helmet is not part of the Snell certification program and does not have the confidence of the Foundation.  

Snell Helmet Testing

"How do you test a helmet, do you stand around hitting people on the head?"

This question is probably the winner of the most Frequently Asked Questions award, and all we can answer is "Not Anymore". Actually the testing of helmets is a fairly straightforward process.  While most helmet testing is denoted "performance testing" (How well a device or piece of equipment performs under defined conditions that are analogous to real life situations), rather than "materials testing" (The testing of materials that will be used in the construction of an item, to a defined set of conditions in controlled settings) it is really a combination of both.  This is because it would be virtually impossible to perform a true performance test on a helmet that would be repeatable at all and that you could readily ascertain helmets capabilities in a variety of scenarios.  What has been decided is that testing needs to replicate possible stresses the helmet might see in a wide variety of incidents rather than to try to duplicate a real life incident.  True to this philosophy a helmet is tested for a variety of criteria: retention strength, stability (how well the helmet will stay on), penetration resistance, chin guard strength (if applicable), face shield integrity (if applicable), and most importantly impact energy management.  Most helmet standards also have requirements for coverage and visual clearances. Helmet testing is a destructive process, meaning that all tested helmets are destroyed during the testing process.  All of the requirements of the Snell Standards are described in each individual standard.

"Has my helmet been tested to Snell?"

The specific answer is yes and no. If the helmet model and size you have is certified and in good standing with Snell, samples of that model and size helmet have been tested to determine if the design, manufacturing processes and materials used meet the requirements of the Snell standard. Since helmet testing is destructive, helmets that have undergone any type of testing are destroyed in the process. If your helmet has been tested, it's time for a new one.

Helmet questions in general

Why wear a helmet?

Auto racing, motorcycling, bicycling, skiing and any activity that incorporates speed, agility and a head, all impose risks of head injury leading to death or permanent disability. Helmets are the single most effective means of preventing these injuries.

How do helmets work?

Helmets are normally comprised of four elements; a rigid outer shell, a crushable liner, chin straps or a retaining system, and fit or comfort padding. The rigid outer shell, when present, adds a load-spreading capability, and prevents objects from penetrating the helmet. The liner, usually made of EPS (expanded polystyrene) or similar types of materials, absorbs the energy of an impact by crushing. The chin strap when properly buckled and adjusted along with the fit padding helps the helmet remain in position during a crash.  

Helmets work like a brake or shock absorber.  During a fall or crash, a head is traveling at a certain speed. Since the head has weight and is moving, there is a certain amount of energy associated with the moving head. When the helmet along with the accompanying head impacts an unyielding object, a rock, a wall, a curb or the ground, the hard shell starts by taking the energy generated by the falling helmet (head) and spreads it over a larger portion of the helmet, specifically, the internal foam liner. The foam liner then starts to crush and break which uses up a lot of the energy, keeping it from reaching the head inside.  Depending on how fast the head is traveling, and how big, heavy and immovable the object is, the faster the head slows down, and the more energy is present. In short, everything slows down really quickly. A helmet will effectively reduce the speed of the head by breaking and crushing which reduces the amount of energy transferred to the brain. The whole process take only milliseconds to turn a potentially lethal blow into a survivable one.

Why should you replace your helmet every five years?

The five-year replacement recommendation is based on a consensus by both helmet manufacturers and the Snell Foundation. Glues, resins and other materials used in helmet production can affect liner materials. Hair oils, body fluids and cosmetics, as well as normal "wear and tear" all contribute to helmet degradation. Petroleum based products present in cleaners, paints, fuels and other commonly encountered materials may also degrade materials used in many helmets possibly degrading performance. Additionally, experience indicates there will be a noticeable improvement in the protective characteristic of helmets over a five-year period due to advances in materials, designs, production methods and the standards. Thus, the recommendation for five-year helmet replacement is a judgment call stemming from a prudent safety philosophy.

"I dropped my helmet! Do I have to go buy a new one?"

Generally the answer is probably not.  Helmets are one-use items, but are quite durable otherwise, at least the ones we certify. Frequent dropping or spiking   a helmet on the ground, or other hard surfaces may eventually degrade the helmet's performance.  Similarly if the helmet falls to the ground at highway speeds unoccupied, the owner must be aware that some degradation may have occurred.   In general, the real damage comes when the helmet contacts an object with a head inside.  The Foundation recommends that if you are participating in an activity that requires that you wear a helmet, you avoid hitting stuff with your head.  It can be difficult to readily determine if a helmet has been damaged, and the protective capabilities compromised without a thorough inspection by a trained professional.  Some manufacturers may provide this service or direct you to these others that can perform these inspections.  The Foundation recommends that if you suspect your helmet may be compromised, then replace it. If the helmet has been involved in an impact while in use, replace it.  

How about after-market accessories?

Each year we get a whole bunch of questions about different aftermarket helmet attachments.  The Snell Standards and testing apply strictly to whole helmets and how they perform out of the box.  Snell does not test, or qualify aftermarket helmet accessories. We only certify complete helmet structures. The addition, subtraction or modification of any part, component or structure integral to the performance of any Snell certified helmet may void completely or in part the Foundation's ability to support claims of Snell certification for that helmet. This generally does not include cosmetic changes such as painting, unless it is performed contrary to the manufacturers' recommendations.    

Should I buy a helmet on-line?

Good fit is essential to best head protection. Everyone who shops for a helmet should do it as if it is a shoe purchase. Generally we do not recommend buying a helmet on the web. There is no way to know whether a helmet will fit well based on the size designation of a helmet and your head circumference. People with the same head size may have different head shape. Without trying on the helmet there is no good way to tell.

How do I know whether a new motorcycle helmet is a good fit for me?

First, you should try a few helmet models to find one that feels most snug and comfortable all the way around the head. To check if the helmet is too big, you should buckle the strap and try to pull the lower back of the helmet forward and then push the front brow area of the helmet backward to see if the helmet will slip off either way. If it does, the helmet is too large. A new motorcycle helmet should fit very snugly. Most people buy a new motorcycle helmet one size too big. To make sure the helmet is not too small, you should leave the helmet on your head for at least five to ten minutes to see if there is any feeling of pressure point. Some helmet models have exchangeable cheek pads for better comfort.

What should I do to take care of my motorcycle helmet?

Do not place your helmet so that a projection or any hard object, such as the motorcycle mirror, can damage the inner foam liner of the helmet. Only use mild soap water to clean the inside pads. Never use any chemical cleaning products for the inside or outside of your helmet. Never repaint your helmet with paints that are not authorized by the manufacturer.

How does a helmet prevent brain injuries?

A good helmet provides the brain extra TIME and SPACE to avoid or reduce injuries. First, it is the sudden stop, not the fall, which causes brain injuries. Imagine yourself in a moving bus that comes to a sudden stop. Without a seat belt, your body would keep moving until you hit the back of the seat in front of you or the bus windshield. Imagine this: your brain tissues are like passengers on a moving bus. A good helmet acts like a good driver that gives your brain inside the helmet a little more time, a few taps on the brake, to come to a gentler stop. Secondly, when thumbtacks are used correctly, the wall is pierced, not the thumb. The flat of the thumbtack spreads the force over a broad area of thumb and the sharp point concentrates that same force against a small area of the wall. In the same way, a good helmet spreads concentrated forces from a rock or any irregular impact surface over a broad area of the helmet’s protective liner and the wearer’s scalp and skull. Instead of slicing through flesh and skull, the forces are redirected by the helmet. Not wearing a helmet is comparable to misusing a thumbtack, except that hardly anyone dies of thumb injuries.

How to fasten a "D-ring" style helmet chin strap?

Pass the strap through both rings from inside to outside of helmet and let strap fall. Separate the rings, grasp free end of strap and pass it back through inside ring only (outside to inside) and pull comfortably tight. Tip: Practice method before wearing helmet.

What's a batch test, and is it better than RST?

Batch testing is another form of compliance checking. It is a common method used by many European and other country's Governmental Standards as well as some of the private ones. Batch test schemes are used to test many types of products. It's called a batch test is because a manufacturer will produce a batch of product and be required to submit a certain number of samples from the batch for testing, or in some cases test data collected by the manufacturer these products to the organization requiring the test. The drawbacks of batch testing are that the system may be manipulated too easily. Unscrupulous manufacturers could make sure the tests performed on their products in their own lab, or by a hired one, indicate that they technically are in compliance with the requirements of the standard. Additionally, if it is required that the batch helmet samples are tested at an outside source, it is possible to make sure the helmets selected will perform as required. The potential benefit of batch testing is that if everything is operating idyllically, and inferior batch of helmets can be identified and distribution halted until the problem is corrected. Over the years, Snell has tried to implement batch programs to supplement the RST program, but have consistently seen that the Snell RST program tends to successfully find inferior product more readily.

So, what's the best helmet?

To answer this seemingly simple question can be very involved, to some degree boring and even confusing.  When outside organizations test certain products like safety gear to determine how "good", or how protective it is, generally they are only testing a few samples of each product. A good for instance would be automobile testing. Whether it's by a government or private organizations, the cost of testing more than just a few samples of a particular make and model of vehicle quickly becomes prohibitive. Since the number of vehicles that are tested is limited, and each vehicle can only really be tested once, the number of possible collision types is limited. If you only test three vehicles of a particular make and model, you can only look at three possible types of crashes. This creates the situation that if a vehicle performs poorly in a test for say, a front end collisions against a concrete barrier, traveling at 55 mph, hitting at a 90 degree angle, it can be determined that you don't want to hit a concrete barrier at 90 degrees, traveling at 55 mph in this vehicle. You can even make the general determination that the vehicle's front end protection is poor or inadequate. If the vehicle performs well in this test, the determination about overall safety may become somewhat more dicer. For instance, many car makers will quote results from crash testing in advertisements touting that the vehicle received a five star rating in front end crash testing however, they neglect to reveal how it performed in other testing, or if in fact any other testing has been performed. All of this in no way reflects on the organizations performing the tests, and the car makers may well be trying to make the safest vehicle possible. It is more a matter inherent to the limitations of the systems and costs to do the tests.

OK, so what about helmets?

Helmets are generally cheaper than most automobiles. This allows for a greater scope of testing to be done. Snell is very specific about the performance requirements for each certified helmet model. Every helmet that is tested to our standards, either for certification, or in our random testing program is impacted at least 8 to 9 times at 4 or 5 different locations that can vary based on the test technicians observations, and best judgment. For certification, we can evaluate a helmet model with impacts to as many as 20 different locations. Furthermore, since the testing impact sites are not dictated, the testing technicians can inspect each helmet closely to determine the areas of greatest concern. Snell's RST (Random Sample Testing) program is an extension of the certification testing. When helmets are acquired for random testing, whenever possible we get them from stocks intended for sale to consumers, or for distribution to end users. Most come from private distributors, retail stores as well as catalog and online dealers. All of these helmets are tested in the same manner to confirm that the manufacturer is keeping up their quality control. Snell will test as many as 1000 helmets in our random testing program this year. For the most popular and biggest selling helmet brands, as many as 150 to 200 samples may be tested each year.

How do I choose a helmet?

Buying a helmet is much like buying anything that is important to you. You should choose a helmet based on its ability to do the job it's intended for, regardless of whether or not it's to satisfy a law or if you want the best protection available. First you need to decide about the things that matter to you. There are a number of items that are important in finding a helmet that suits you. Snell recommends the following no matter what helmet you buy:

  • Fit - Make sure that the size and shape of the helmet are suited to your head. Sizing in helmets, even many of the numerical sizes may not be consistent from brand to brand or even model to model. Additionally make sure the retaining system is effective comfortable and easy to use.
  • Comfort - Make sure the helmet is as comfortable to wear as possible. It is likely to be on your head for a while and it should not become so annoying that you are distracted from the important task of riding safely. Also, choose an appropriate helmet for the type of riding you will do most frequently and the environment you're riding in. Full face helmets offer a measure of protection from impacts to the face, and flying debris like cigarette butts and gravel as well as helping to avoid the dreaded insectus dentus adhesion affliction, or "Bug Tooth Syndrome". Full face helmets do tend to retain more heat though which is a consideration as well.
  • Style - This may seem trivial and not related to safety, but it does have its place. Get a helmet you like. For many riding is a big part of their life. It's not just transportation, but also an important recreational activity, even a lifestyle. It is common sense to conclude that a rider is more likely to consistently wear something he or she likes rather than something that they do not.
  • Safety - The only thing that can be added is that Snell has been concerning itself solely with helmets and head protection for over fifty years. Our focus does not include trying to sell you a helmet, trying to require you wear a helmet or trying to limit the innovation of helmets. For years Snell has merely tried to educate consumers about the importance of a good helmet and point riders who are concerned with protecting the stuff between their ears toward helmets that perform to the Snell standards.

Snell Standards specific question

What are the differences between the SA, M and K standards?

The SA standard was designed for competitive auto racing while the M standard was for motorcycling and other motorsports. The K standard was released to accommodate helmets used in karting. There are three major differences between them:

  1. The SA standard requires flammability test while the M and K standards do not.
  2. The SA and K standards allow for a narrower visual field than the M standard (Some SA and K certified helmets may not be street legal).
  3. The SA and K standards include a roll bar multi-impact test while the M standard does not.