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NHTSA logo NHTSA address

July 25, 1997

Mr. Steven Shmerler
7266 Franklin Avenue #121
Los Angeles, CA 90046

Dear Mr. Shmerler:

This is in response to your electronic mail message of April 22, 1996 to Otto Matheke.

You have asked several questions regarding motorcycle helmets and their use. Before responding to your specific requests, would like to provide you with some background information regarding NHTSA's regulation of motorcycle helmets.

Pursuant to Federal law, 49 U.S.C. Chapter 301, NHTSA is responsible for promulgating and enforcing safety standards applicable to new motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment Under this authority, NHTSA has promulgated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218, "Motorcycle Helmets" (Standard 218). Pursuant to 49 U.S.C. ¤ 30112(a), a person may not manufacture for sale, sell, offer for sale, introduce or deliver for introduction into interstate commerce, or import into the United States any new motorcycle helmet unless it complies with all applicable provisions of Standard 218 and covered by a certification of such compliance.

Under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (Safety Act), it is the responsibility of manufacturers of motor vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment to certify that their products comply with all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards. NHTSA's role is to test products to determine if they comply with the requirements of Federal motor vehicle safety standards, in this case Standard No. 218, "Motorcycle Helmets." If NHTSA's tests reveal that the requirements of the Standard are not satisfied, the agency may commence enforcement action against the manufacturer and may ultimately order a recall of noncompliant helmets.

As your letter indicates, in recent years there has been a great deal of misunderstanding in California and elsewhere regarding the effect of a manufacturer's certification of compliance. While the self-certification requirements of the Safety Act help to ensure that motor vehicle equipment complies with applicable standards by providing that manufacturers who knowingly issue materially false or misleading certifications risk the imposition of civil penalties of up to $1,100 per violation, a manufacturer's certification does not always establish that its helmets actually comply with Standard No. 218. If tests by NHTSA or by another responsible test facility demonstrate that a particular model of motorcycle helmet does not comply with the standard, those helmets cannot qualify under state helmet use laws that require motorcyclists to use compliant helmets. For example, although the "Baby Beanie" helmet manufactured by E & R Fiberglass Co, of Tacoma, Washington was certified by E & R as complying with Standard No. 218, tests conducted for NHTSA and by the manufacturer clearly demonstrated that the helmets do not comply with the Standard.

Recently, there has been a proliferation of substandard, lightweight helmets that do not comply with Standard No. 218. Some manufacturers have improperly certified their helmets, while others do not claim to make a compliant helmet, but ship their product with "DOT" decals for the owner to apply. In addition, "DOT" decals have become widely available, from motorcycle shops and other sources, for individuals to apply to helmets to make them appear to have been certified. Individuals are also "manufacturing" helmets for their own use and certifying them as meeting Standard No. 218.

The appearance of such substandard helmets has created difficulties for both motorcycle riders and law enforcement officials. As you state in your letter, the California helmet law requires riders to wear a helmet that meets Standard No. 218. You also correctly assert that manufacturers bear the responsibility for certifying that their helmets meet the Standard. However, your assertion that motorcyclists need only wear a helmet affixed with a DOT sticker to comply with this law is a matter of state law and is, therefore, a question for state officials to address.

Your letter also indicates your view that much of the current confusion regarding helmets could be rectified by the publication of a list of helmets that have definitely passed Standard 218. However, despite an expansion of our helmet test program, the agency does not have the resources to identify and test every helmet in the marketplace. This problem has been made more acute in recent years, where many small companies, and individuals themselves, have begun to manufacture substandard helmets with misleading certifications, or with no certification at all but have provided certification stickers for the user to apply.

You have also asked two questions. The questions, and the answers, are provided below.

1) I would like to know the nature of how NHTSA tests a helmet and if it is possible for someone to determine if a helmet is positively in full compliance with FMVSS 218 by holding a helmet or visually inspecting it from one's car.

Agency compliance testing of helmets to Standard No. 218 is performed by contractors who follow a test protocol for determining if a helmet meets the standard. Standard 218 requires that a helmet meet certain criteria when subjected to visual inspection and a set of laboratory tests. Visual inspection of a helmet against a reference headform will reveal whether it covers a minimum area of the head and allows a minimum degree of peripheral vision as required by S5.4. Visual inspection may also reveal whether the helmet meets the labeling requirements set forth in S5.6 and does not have projections that violate S5.5. Laboratory testing is used to determine if the helmet meets the impact attenuation, penetration, and retention system performance requirements found in S5.1, S5.2 and S5.3.

Determination of whether a helmet meets Standard 218 usually requires laboratory testing. This is not to say, however, that visual inspection of a helmet or a device purporting to be a helmet cannot serve to conclusively determine if a helmet meets Standard 218 or to determine that there is a very high probability that a helmet does not meet the Standard.

For example, NHTSA is aware that some motorcycle riders have declared themselves to be manufacturers of their own helmets and have applied certification stickers to coconut shells, baseball caps and fiberglass skullcaps covering a small portion of the head. These contrivances often do not cover the minimum area of the head required by Standard 218, are often not labeled in accordance with the requirements of the Standard and obviously do not provide any impact protection to the user. In addition, if such contrivances have a retention system, it is unlikely that the system would meet the requirements of Standard 218. Regardless of whether these "helmets" are certified by their manufacturer as meeting Standard No. 218, stating that these "helmets" cannot be evaluated in regards to compliance with Standard 218 on the basis of visual inspection would clearly be absurd.

In the case of other helmets, which are constructed of fiberglass or plastic and cover a larger area of the head, determination of compliance on the basis of appearance alone is less reliable but still possible. Certainly, if a helmet does not have a certification sticker, or has projections on the shell that are longer than 5 millimeters, an observer would be justified in concluding that it does not meet Standard 218. If the observer has an opportunity for closer inspection, including the opportunity to view the interior, such an inspection may reveal that the helmet does not meet labeling requirements or has internal projections.

In addition, NHTSA helmet testing of substandard and "novelty" helmets has also revealed that these helmets have common characteristics that can be detected by visual observation. While the agency cannot state that any helmet with these characteristics will not meet Standard 218 without testing the helmet, over 20 years of helmet testing has revealed that it is almost certain that such helmets will not meet the Standard. The characteristics of these helmets are:

1. A thin liner less than 3/4 of an inch thick, which allows
the helmet to ride close to the head of the wearer;

2. A retention system consisting of thin nylon straps and
lightweight D-rings;

3. Any visible projections longer than five millimeters in

It should also be noted that NHTSA's test experience with noncompliant lightweight helmets, notably the E&R; "Baby Beanie," Florida's Choice Lite Lids (AKA Chico) "LBL" and "LBL Winner," Frenchy's Worldwide Helmets "Desert Storm," and "Raven," and others indicates that these helmets are markedly similar in appearance. Law enforcement officials familiar with these known noncompliant helmets may mistake similar or identical helmets that have not been tested with one of the aforementioned noncompliant helmets.

You should be aware that whether a law enforcement official's inspection of a helmet is sufficient to justify either the detention of an individual or the issuance of a summons is a matter of state law. As such, this office cannot comment on whether such an action by law enforcement official is in compliance with the law of your state.

2) And lastly, could I get a copy of the FMVSS 218 testing protocol that you mentioned?

A copy of the test protocol is enclosed. It is also available on the NHTSA web site at www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

I hope that this is responsive to your inquiry.


John Womack signature
John Womack
Acting Chief Counsel


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