When shopping for a helmet, gloves, jacket, boots, or pants meant for motorcycle riding, you’ll have noticed the product info refers to all sorts of safety standards. For helmets you may have DOT or SNELL, for example. On clothing you may often a “CE Approved” or similar mark. These look very fancy, but what do they actually mean? How are they related to the actual protection you’ll get when you part with your hard earned cash for this equipment?

In this article I’m going to try and demystify these standards so that you know exactly what it is you are buying and don’t end up overspending and under-protecting yourself.

Helmet Safety Standards

In general there are three helmet safety standards you are likely to encounter – DOT, SNELL and ECE 22.05.

DOT (Department of Transport) is probably the most common one in the USA and you’ll see many cheaper helmets carry nothing but this label. Be warned however, that some of the older DOT markings are easily counterfeited, and some novelty helmets that don’t actually comply with the standard carry the marking illegally.

One major issue with DOT is that it isn’t subject to third-party testing. Each manufacturer must test and certify their own helmets. This isn’t a problem if the testing is done by a reputable helmet manufacturer (e.g. Bell or Arai), but if it’s an unknown company of foreign origin, you may want to exercise some healthy skepticism of a DOT sticker.

The governing body does, however, randomly purchase samples of a manufacturer’s helmets and test them against DOT standards. If they are found to be in violation, the manufacturer can face penalties of as much as $5000 per helmet. So DOT is still pretty effective at keeping manufacturers honest – at least those within reach of the U.S. government.

The actual standard that DOT refers to is called FMVSS 218 and it involves standards of impact, field of view, energy absorption, and penetration. The actual requirements of the standard of DOT is actually quite good, so you can feel safe in a helmet that genuinely complies.

ECE standards are of European origin and overlap quite a bit with DOT, obviously. ECE standards include integrated visor standards, which DOT doesn’t. In the U.S. there are separate VESC 8 specifications for integrated visors. ECE doesn’t call for penetration testing, but it does ask for things DOT doesn’t, such as a helmet surface that doesn’t catch onto the test surface, for reducing twisting forces on the neck of the rider. In other words, a helmet that is both DOT and ECE compliant is better than either in isolation. ECE standards are not voluntarily self-tested. Manufacturers must submit samples for testing, so in this way it is a bit better than DOT.

SNELL certification, unlike DOT or ECE, is entirely voluntary. It is, however, much more stringent and it’s unlikely that anyone could get away with faking it. More expensive helmets tend to have SNELL certification as a show of quality. SNELL goes beyond minimum government standards, so it is well worth considering.

Snell Logo of Approval:

Clothing Standards

When it comes to things like clothes, boots, and so on, there isn’t as clear-cut a safety rating system as we have with helmets. Most often you’ll see that a product is “CE Certified” or “CE Approved”.

CE refers to the European equivalent of the FCC. The CE standards refer to abrasion performance. There are no mandatory U.S. standards for abrasion in protective clothing as I write this, so it makes it very difficult to judge the quality of a garment. Some manufacturers such as BMW will do their own internal testing and give you an indication of how well the product performs, but you only have their word for it and obviously there may be a conflict of interest there.

At this point it seems as if everyone is just going with the CE standard, so let’s talk about what that involves. There are various CE standards for different types of clothing and applications. I won’t list all the ones that relate to motorcycle clothing here – there are about nine different ones for things like jackets and boots, and that’s excluding helmets. Each of these has its own criteria for impact and abrasion. These standards are quite good and CE certification is at least a little peace of mind in an industry that isn’t too well-regulated.

CE Certified vs CE Approved

Still, even with CE standards there are some shenanigans. There’s a difference between something being CE approved, tested, or certified.

If something is labeled as “CE Tested” it means that the manufacturer tested the garment internally against CE standards. This does not mean it was independently tested or verified!

If it says “CE Certified”, on the other hand, it means that the garments were tested in a certified facility and MAY have passed some of the criteria.

If is says “CE Approved” it means multiple samples have been submitted for independent testing and the product has met or exceeded ALL criteria. Generally this means you want to get things labeled as “approved”, but certified garments may be fine if the criteria it failed to pass may not have been relevant or important for the intended use. You can usually view the certificate for that product and decide for yourself whether it has passed the things that you think really matter.

CE Zones

For CE Certified and Tested garments you may see passes or fails for certain “zones”. There are four zones in CE that refer to parts of the body (excluding the head, feet, and hands) that have varying levels of risk when it comes to impact and abrasion. Zone 1 has the highest risk and Zone 4 the lowest. Zone 1 includes the shoulders, elbows, upper outer thighs, and knees; these should have armor plating. Zone 2 includes the the rest of the outer upper and lower body. These should have extra layers of material. Zone 3 and 4 include all the rest; usually these are only protected against light abrasion or are used only for ventilation. So a garment that passes zones 1 to 3 may be just as safe as one that passes all 4, since zone four is basically irrelevant to safety in terms of impact and abrasion risk.

Conclusion

There is a lot more information to discuss about the different safety standards, but this page is meant to give you enough knowledge to make an informed purchase. Whatever you buy and to whatever standard it is labeled, make sure to actually look at the certification. This is usually either in the manual or included as a separate leaflet. Make sure that that the certificate clearly states what was tested and how well the product did in those tests. Products that do not include copies of testing certificates are NOT certified. The documentation should also state the date and place of testing. You should be able to confirm certification by phoning or writing to the testing authority, if you have any doubts.

Safety standards are the only thing we have to give us an idea whether what we buy will actually protect us. So it is important you know what it is your gear is certified for. If you do a little bit of homework it can save you a lot of pain and misery in the future. So don’t take the lazy route!