How UK motorcycle helmets are tested

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If you want to know how safe a motorcycle helmet is it’s quite easy to look up on the SHARP (Safety Helmets Assessment and Rating Program) website. They’ve got over 500 helmets listed on there, all of which have been put through a rigorous testing program and given a star rating from one to five. That’s great, but how can you really test the safety of a helmet, and how do they come up with their numbers? Well this is how they do it…

First of all, a bit of background on SHARP. It’s a UK government thing, that the Department of Transport initiated back in 2007. They’d done a load of research (called COST 327, if you’re interested) that showed, amongst other things, that the temple is massively vulnerable to injury, and that if helmets were 30% better at absorbing energy, we’d end up with 50% fewer critical injuries from bike crashes. The problem with that, is as a customer walking into a shop to buy a helmet, you’ve no real idea of the helmets absorption capabilities; and you can’t really take the salesman’s word for it when it’s something as important as that.

So they decided to do something about it, and develop some tests to see which motorcycle helmets are the safest, so we as the consumer, are better informed when we’re spending our hard-earned on a new lid. Great.

How do they test them?

That’s one way to test a helmet, cheers Fagan.

Every model of helmet undergoes 32 separate tests. That’s 30 ‘linear’ tests and two ‘oblique’ tests; linear meaning they smash the helmet into something head on, oblique meaning they bounce it off at an angle. The linear tests are carried out at three different speeds, 6m/s, 7.5m/s and 8.5m/s. They are also done at the front, back, top and both sides, using a flat anvil and a kerb-shaped anvil.

For the oblique tests, they drop the helmet onto an abrasive surface to test how much it grips. The thinking behind that is that a helmet that grips when it touches the ground at speed, it’s more likely to cause head and neck injuries than one that glances off it.

This table shows all the tests conducted.

SHARP Tests for Motorcycle Helmets

HelmetVelocityImpact type and location of helmetImpact surface
16.0m/sLinear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and RearFlat anvil
26.0m/sLinear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and RearKerb anvil
37.5m/sLinear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and RearFlat anvil
47.5m/sLinear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and RearKerb anvil
58.5m/sLinear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and RearFlat anvil
68.5m/sLinear impacts to Front, Left, Right, Crown and RearKerb anvil
78.5m/sOblique impacts to the left and ride sidesAbrasive anvil

They’re not just thrown around willy-nilly. Everything’s done with machines and there are a ton of sensors working out exactly how well the helmet performs in the different areas and the different speeds.

For every model they test, they use a minimum of seven different helmets, meaning they can compare and contrast the data. That not only gives them an average performance, over seven examples of the same helmet, but allows them to determine the consistency.

And to make it a fair test, the tests are all carried out on helmets that SHARP have purchased from the same shops that you or I would. That means the manufacturers can’t be sneaky and give them a ‘special’ one.

Why don’t they use 32 helmets though, if there are 32 different tests? Well that’s simple, it’s because doing multiple tests on one helmet gives an indication of how well it does when it’s repeatedly put under different types of pressure. And that’s important, because if you’ve had a crash big enough to have a head impact, chances are you might have a few more head impacts before you stop tumbling.

How do they rate them?

The way they are rated is actually really complicated. There’s been all sorts of studies to say which of the areas of the helmet are more important than others, because of the fact that different areas of the head are more vulnerable (like the temple), and because certain areas of the helmet are more likely to come into contact with the ground during a crash (like the back and sides). Because of this, the different test results are weighted in certain ways, to give a rating that best reflects ‘real world’ accident safety. In short, there are some really complicated maths. To make it simpler, each of the motorcycle helmets tested is given a star rating. One star being the worst, five stars being the best; obviously.

It’s dead easy to see how SHARP have rated any particular helmet, just head over to their website, and search for the make and model of helmet in question. It’s actually not a bad place to compare helmets, because there’s quite a bit of info on there about all the different models they’ve tested.

Of course, don’t forget these are only laboratory tests, and can only replicate a real crash with a limited amount of accuracy.

What should I go for then?

Well surely that’s simple, go for the helmet with the most stars, that you can afford. That’s one way of looking at it. But there is more to buying a helmet than how many safety stars SHARP have given it. Because there are five-star helmets from £100 – £1,000. But that doesn’t necessarily mean either the £100 or the £1,000 lid is right for you. And whilst the £100 one might have scored five stars for safety, it probably won’t have many features; it’s likely to be a bit heavy, noisy, buffety. It might not fit brilliantly, the visor mechanism and the vents might be a bit cheap. There might not be a removable and washable liner, etc. etc. etc. And the £1,000 lid might simply be out of your price range.

So my advice to anyone looking for a new helmet would be to try a few on. Find one that fits well and is comfortable. One that’s got all the features that you want/need. And then before you hand your money over, check how well it’s scored in SHARP’s tests. If it doesn’t have as many stars as you expected, you can either keep shopping or buy it anyway; as long as you’re happy knowing there may be safer helmets out there.

Because don’t forget, all motorcycle helmets that’re sold (officially) need to meet at least one regulatory standard – they all have to offer some level of protection. It’s up to you what level of protection you feel like your head deserves.


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