Bicycle Helmet Standards
Summary: The Consumer Product Safety Commission bike helmet standard is required by law in the US. Some of the Snell Memorial Foundation standards are a bit more difficult to pass, but are not often used. ASTM continues to produce standards for other activities such as skating, skiing and downhill bicycle racing. Australia, Canada, Europe and others have bicycle helmet standards as well, and we discuss them below. We also have a summary standards comparison page.
Standards Discussed Below
All of the standards discussed here require the helmet to pass a lab test where it is placed on an instrumented headform, turned upside down and dropped for a measured distance onto an anvil. The anvil can be flat, round (hemispheric) or another shape like a curbstone, a skate blade or a horse's hoof. Drop distances vary but are generally between one and two meters (3.3 to 6.6 feet). For the helmet to pass, the accelerometer inside the headform must register less than 300 g's during the impact, or in some cases less than 250 or even 200 g's. (We have a page on g's.) The standard specifies the coverage required by calling out a test line, with the impacts aimed on or above it. There is always a strap and buckle strength requirement, and sometimes a positional stability or "rolloff" test to see if the helmet will stay on the headform when yanked fore or aft. For details,
see our quick chart or our detailed comparison.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission was tasked by Congress with the development of a U.S. Government standard for bicycle helmets, and began to do so in 1994. After working with an ASTM task group and producting two drafts for public comment, the third and final draft was approved in February of 1998, and the final version of the standard was published. One interpretation letter has been issued since that time. The standard covers all helmets produced for the US market after March 10, 1999. Since that time it has been the most-used standard in the U.S. market and the world. You can read a plain English description of the standard on the CPSC Web site.
1. CPSC Standard - The U.S. Law
We have a whole list of documents on the CPSC standard that we collected during the development of the standard if you want to trace back through that for a research project. We also have a page of photos of the CPSC test lab. The agency has a new lab for occupancy in December of 2010.
The CPSC standard uses a lab test drop of 2.0 meters on a flat anvil and 1.2 meters on a hemispheric and a curbstone anvil.
BHSI began participating in the CPSC meetings in September, 1994, and provided written comments on the CPSC drafts. We also participated in the ASTM task group that provided analysis to the
CPSC staff of comments received on the standard by CPSC. In addition we send a representative to all of the CPSC public meetings, including the meetings to discuss the proposed addition of a requirement for reflective surfaces to the CPSC standard. CPSC held another public meeting on June 5, 1995, for further discussion of that subject and their proposed coverage requirements, which were somewhat greater than the ASTM requirement had been. We attended and helped to organize a test in June of 1995 of various reflective tapes that could be required on helmets. We were hoping that CPSC would hold the line on the test line requirements and add a requirement for a retro-reflective surface area to make helmets more visible under night conditions. In fact, they fell back a little on the test line second draft, but held it in the final one. They eliminated the reflective requirement from the final rule after finding that reflective tape did not help recognition distances in their tests. We were keenly disappointed that the final draft also eliminated the use of lower of g levels for child helmets and lighter test headforms more consistent with a child's head weight. Instead child helmets are tested to the adult standard as if there were no difference in their heads. We have urged the Commission to bear in mind the need to revise bicycle helmet standards regularly to keep them up to date.
You can download the CPSC standard in Adobe Acrobat format (as a .pdf file) from the CPSC server, or get the html file here. CPSC also has a more readable summary of their standard in plain English. We have our comments up on the final draft. We also have done two email Updates on the subject in January, 1998, and sent out a full-blown Update by email and later on paper when the standard was approved in February, 1998.
In addition to the helmet standard, some aspects of CPSC's regulations on lead and phthalates apply to helmets. See our page on the CPSIA act for more on that.
Before the CPSC standard took effect, more than 70 per cent of the world's bicycle helmet production had been certified to the standard of the American Society for Testing and Materials. That standard is still in effect but now is little used.
2. The Most-Used Standard before 1999: ASTM F1447
ASTM is active in improving and promoting its bicycle helmet standard. ASTM F1447replaced the Snell standard as the most widely used bike helmet standard in the mid-1990's. Manufacturers who made the switch felt that Snell was charging them too much for certification.
The ASTM standard is identical to the CPSC standard in all important respects except one. It is a voluntary standard and was never the law of the land in the US. It is self-certifying, so a manufacturer can put a sticker in their helmets stating that they meet the ASTM standard without independent certification. Otherwise the lab tests required are nearly identical.
Members of the ASTM F-08.53 Subcommittee include all of the major helmet manufacturers in the U.S. and Canada, some other foreign manufacturers, academics, researchers, government agencies, testing labs, and a handful of consumer advocates. BHSI is the most active consumer organization. The chair of the Subcommittee is David Halstead, of the University of Tennessee and Southern Impact test labs. BHSI's Randy Swart is First VP, and Second VP Rick Greenwald of Simbex and Princeton University. Meetings are scheduled every six months, during which the committee holds various technical and administrative meetings over a three day period. Observers are always welcome at any of the meetings.
When the F1447 standard was in active use, the Safety Equipment Institute, a non-profit that certifies various types of safety equipment to industry standards, developed a program to certify bicycle helmets to it. The program used a well-known and competent test lab (ETL Testing Labs in Cortland, NY) and incorporated a rigorous quality control program requirement. Follow-up testing was only annual, and SEI does not purchase samples from the field. But their emphasis on quality control is potentially more effective in ensuring that sub-standard production runs never reach retail outlets, where recalls are generally either not undertaken or ineffective in reaching the consumer. We conclude that on balance under most circumstances the SEI program was roughly equivalent to Snell's certification described below. But the SEI program is now dormant, even though it could be used to certify compliance to the CPSC standard. It is still required by equestrian organizations for certification of the ASTM equestrian helmet standard.
The Snell Foundation is a non-profit founded in 1957 to promote better helmets after the death by head injury of race car driver Pete Snell while wearing an ineffective helmet. The foundation began issuing auto racing helmet standards soon after it was established, followed by motorcycle, bicycle, equestrian, ski and other helmet standards.
3. Still the Toughest: the Snell Foundation
For most of the last fifty years, the Snell standard has been set with impact levels slightly higher or even considerably higher than the current average helmet's performance, usually denoting the best high-end impact protection in the field. Some motorcycle helmet experts feel that the resultant helmets can be too stiff in impact response. Because they are designed to perform at higher drop levels, they may offer less benefit at lower impact levels where the stiffer foam may not crush at all. That probably does not apply to bicycle helmets. Snell has a rigorous certification procedure, with follow-up testing of helmets procured in the field from retail outlets. For this service the manufacturer pays for the Snell certification sticker placed in each helmet, plus the costs of the follow-up testing.
In the early to mid '90's virtually every well-constructed bicycle helmet was able to meet the Snell B-1990 Bicycle Helmet standard. It specifies a 2 meter drop on the flat anvil and a 1.2 meter drop on the hemispheric anvil, the same levels in the 1994 ASTM F1447 and 1999 CPSC standards. For a time, Snell's 1990 standard became the de facto minimum standard for the industry. Most bicycle stores would not stock a non-Snell helmet before 1995. At the end of 1994, however, Bell Sports, with more than half of the industry's market share and very good brand recognition, announced that they would no longer use the Snell Foundation's certification, relying on the ASTM standard and SEI certification instead.
Snell revised its standard in 1995, and the B-1995 version took effect in September of 1995. It requires slightly more head coverage and has slightly higher drop heights (2.2 meters on the flat anvil and 1.3 meters on the hemispheric anvil) than the B-1990 or CPSC standards. But Snell has permitted manufacturers to continue to use the B-1990 standard, accommodating those whose current production did not meet the new standard. In the bicycle field at the present time, a Snell B95 helmet is not much different from a helmet meeting the CPSC standard. Those with only Snell B-90 certification offer no significant performance difference. The main difference is in the certification procedure. Snell's system of follow-up testing of helmets procured from retail outlets in the field compares to CPSC's almost complete lack of market surveillance. Snell buys helmets in the market and then informs the manufacturer if any do not meet their standard, potentially requiring a recall at some point. Although we do not know of any Snell-initiated recalls of bicycle helmets over the years, this is designed to force the manufacturer to be careful about quality control.
If you are interested in reading a standard, the two Snell standards referenced above are clearly written, and are worth a look if you want to know how helmets are tested. You can find more Snell information on the Snell Foundation Web page, including a current list of helmets certified to each of their standards. In 2011 they began certifying to a new B-90TT standard apparently for Time Trial helmets, but it is not posted on the Snell Web site yet.
In 1984 the American National Standards Institute adopted a bicycle helmet standard. We were members of ANSI's Z90.4 committee then, and helped to get the standard adopted over the objections of manufacturers whose products would not meet it. Since that time the ANSI committee has been inactive. The standard lapsed, and was declared obsolete by ANSI as of February, 1995.
4. Died, was resurrected as ASTM: ANSI
In a rare meeting later in 1995 the committee voted to adopt the ASTM bicycle helmet standard as the ANSI standard. ANSI took eight years to so that, but at last it became effective in 2003. The 1984 version of the ANSI standard was unfortunately cited in many state and local laws, and now some of those laws are automatically updated when the ASTM standard is improved, unless they have cited the specific date of the ANSI standard. ANSI remains a familiar set of initials. You could still see an ANSI sticker in a helmet, but the best advice is to ignore it as historical artifact and look for CPSC or Snell instead. ANSI's last function was as the U.S. Secretariat for ISO bicycle helmet activities. In mid-1996 the ANSI Z90 Committee members voted to shift the Secretariat for ISO activities from Z90 to the ASTM F08 Committee. In 1999 F08 gave up the Secretariat to an equestrian group, since there was no indication of any interest in harmonizing international bicycle helmet standards. The Z90 Committee has now been disbanded.
A number of other countries have bicycle helmet standards, but they usually get less attention in the U.S. because the number of helmets certified to them is small compared to the millions annually certified and sold here. Among the most interesting is the Australian standard, which is superior in some respects to any of the U.S. standards.
Other Countries' Standards
The Canadian standard has also been rigorous, and has been updated to reduce the permissible g level for child helmets to as low as 200 g in some of the testing, although it may be difficult to find a helmet certified to it.
There were national standards in effect in various European countries, but Europe now has a CEN standard that covers all member states. Helmets can meet it with thinner foam and lighter weight than the US CPSC standard, and often do not pass CPSC impact tests.
New Zealand merged its standard with Australia's. Japan has a standard of its own.
Our Helmet Standards Comparison includes as many of the standards as we have been able to get copies of to date, at last count fifteen, but it may not be entirely up to date.
Most of the standards we discuss are available from the agencies who have issued them, listed at the end of our standards comparison. You can download ASTM's standards for a fee from the ASTM Web server. Or you can order some of them through The Document Center, Inc., a for-profit service located in Belmont, California that provides documents for a fee. As noted
above, the Snell standards are on the Web. As standards go, they are highly readable and easily understood, worth a look if you want to know more about how the testing is done. And the CPSC standard is available as the full standard or as a more readable summary.
Sources for Copies of Standards
As noted above, BHSI is an active consumer representative on the ASTM F8.53 Headgear Subcommittee and BHSI's Randy Swart is First Vice-Chair of the subcommittee. We attend all meetings of the ASTM committee. If a consumer has views on some aspect of helmet standards we are glad to make them known at committee meetings. You can contact us by
email for that purpose.
BHSI as an Information Channel for Consumers
This page was updated or partially revised on: September 30, 2016.