I have always been of the opinion that when riding off road vehicles you must protect the single most important decision-making part of your body and that’s your head. However I have noticed that in the passing years many people choose to buy the cheapest ATV helmet they can find all the while not knowing if it would even protect them in a crash. To make matters worse people will by their children even cheaper head protection. This short read will hopefully help you make the right decision when choosing a helmet.

Let’s take a brief glance into the many certifications that can be found on the legitimate helmets at your local dealer. We have all seen the DOT, SNELL and ECE stamps usually tucked down at the bottom of the backside of your helmet, but we want you to understand what each one means.

The terms can be confusing when I was researching for this article it began to really blur along the way, but I will try to simplify this for you. For the “by the book” investigative readers who expect an exact account of each rule or regulation within the certifications, please know you will not get that here as this is just a briefing for the average rider to find a helmet that is proven to protect their head.

Be aware there are some unscrupulous companies who will just put a decal on their novelty helmet and say it is certified when it is not. This is where innocent people get hurt really quick.


This is the most common certification on North American helmets and it represents the Department of Transportation’s standard of FMVSS 218. This is actually the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard #218, which is a set of guidelines for On-Road use helmets in the United States.

In order for a helmet manufacturer to be able to legitimately attach the DOT logo to its helmet, the helmet must be tested. This does not mean an unlucky employee can just run outside, put on a helmet and run headfirst into a brick wall. Rather, the company must send each and every version of a helmet it sells to a certified testing facility. You have to trust that the company has done its due diligence before permanently attaching the logo.

MSR DOT Certification

This MSR helmet shows a proper DOT certification sticker.

To keep helmet manufacturers in check, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will randomly select versions of helmets and test them for compliance. A fee ranging in dollar amounts up to $5000 per helmet not in compliance is possible for infractions to the guidelines.

Testing guidelines include impact resistance, penetration resistance, and retention system effectiveness. Another test involved how actual vision you have while wearing the helmet. The latest standard is no less than 105-degree peripheral vision left or right from the center line (roughly the bridge of your nose) of the helmet. The NHTSA will also check to make sure that things like snaps or buttons (like those holding a visor on a dirt bike helmet) do not protrude off the surface more than 5mm.

So how does the NHTSA really keep the imposters from selling helmets that have not met DOT standards? In an effort to make it more difficult (anything can be duplicated as you well know) and easily recognized, the DOT label displayed on the back of a helmet must now include, in order, the following information:

  • Manufacturer’s name
  • Model number or name
  • “DOT” below the manufacturer’s name
  • “FMVSS 218” centered below DOT
  • The word “Certified” below FMVSS 218

You’d be wise to look for these details before you buy a new helmet, as your life could depend on it.


This logo represents the Snell Memorial Foundation M2010 helmet standard. This is a non-profit organization that was formed in 1957. Dedicated to the continuing improvement and overall helmet safety, SNELL steps out to help helmet manufacturers in the actual prototype testing of their products for the market. If a manufacturer’s helmet passes the testing according to SNELL M2010, it can then label the helmet SNELL certified. These same developmental build qualities must remain unaltered during production to retain certification. The testing is very similar in nature to the DOT testing with little variation. Check out this video explaining how SNELL certification works.

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Unlike DOT certification, SNELL certification is not a mandatory and is in no way required by federal government agencies. This testing is totally voluntary extra testing for the manufacturer of the protective brain bucket, but as we have seen at some competitive events, the promoter or organizer may require that your helmet has the additional certification to be considered legal for its event. All SNELL certified helmets must undergo random testing along the life of the individual model to keep the certification and keep the maker of the helmet honest.

If you run into a store selling cool looking helmets and want to know just what the application for which they are certified for here is the Snell I.D. labels code key:

  • M = Motorcycle
  • SA = Special Application
  • SAH = Special Application, Frontal Head Restraint System
  • K = Karting
  • CMR = Children’s Motorsports Restricted
  • CMS = Children’s Motorsports Standard

ECE 22.05

ECE stands for Economic Commission for Europe. This standard was created in a United Nations agreement in 1958 and is accepted in 47 countries. The 22.05 numerical designations reference the specific regulation that the standards for testing are described in.

This ECE standard is similar to the DOT standard in several ways, including the peripheral vision through an arc of 105 degrees from the helmet midline. Other similarities include environmental conditioning testing and labeling requirements.

Kali DOT ECE Certifications

This helmet from Kali Protectives is both DOT and ECE certified, as shown by the stickers on the back.

One difference in ECE certification is that puncture testing (typically performed to gain certification through DOT testing) is replaced by deformation testing, which assesses the rigidity of the shell of the helmet by measuring the deformation of the helmet shell when progressively more load is applied up to 141.6 lbs.

ECE certification also requires batch sampling when production begins. The submission of up to 50 sample helmets and visors must be sent to a designated laboratory that is working for the government and that uses ECE standards set in place under the United Nations agreement. This is designed to assure verification of quality control during ongoing production.

The Rest of the Story

Getting your head protected can be an expensive task, but you must also realize that genuine insurance may not be cheap. I am not saying that every helmet that bears a $500 price tag is going to save your life, but I would be willing to bet it could be a lot better than the $89 alternative.

Scorpion Helmet Fit

Beyond safety certifications, a helmet must fit properly and be comfortable.

Here is what I look for when choosing a helmet for off road riding:

  1. A helmet needs to have at least a legit DOT certification with all metrics listed above on the decal or I will set it back down and walk away. If the helmet carries DOT and ECE, then you will most likely get the best possible protection. Remember that the SNELL rating is an optional test and some helmets may not carry this designation.
  2. The next item has to be comfort. If a helmet in your price range is uncomfortable, then you must look a little more or spend more. Try the helmet on before using it. The helmet should sit comfortably on your head with the top of the helmet’s open visor just above your eyebrows. A helmet that fits well will not go on easy but will be more comfortable once in place. Helmets will break in a bit, giving more space as you wear it. Be sure check to see if the helmet moves or your fingers fit easily between your head and the helmet. If so, you’ll likely need a smaller size. The helmet should fit snug around your head and face with no pressure points. Some helmets offer different size cheek pads to lessen or heighten the snugness.
  3. Be realistic in your expectations of the helmet you choose. Even though it may cost more now, one day you may be very grateful to have it if you walk away from a crash.

Final Thoughts

Protect yourself and the ones you love with quality riding gear and think carefully about it before buying. Your head is priceless, so a helmet is not the place to cut corners.



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