There's always buzz going around about what is better when it comes to helmets and their protective capabilities. Snell is traditionally, and for the most part, more demanding than any other standard in the world.
To answer this seemingly simple question can be very involved, to some degree boring and even confusing. We'll try to unravel some of the details so that you, the consumer can decide what helmet is best for you.
When outside organizations test certain products like safety gear to determine how "good", or how protective it is, generally they are only testing a few samples of each product. A good example, for instance, would be automobile testing. Whether it's by a government or private organizations, the cost of testing more than just a few samples of a particular make and model of vehicle quickly becomes prohibitive. Since the number of vehicles that are tested is limited, and each vehicle can only really be tested once, the number of possible collision types is limited. If you only test three vehicles of a particular make and model, you can only look at three possible types of crashes.
This creates the situation that if a vehicle performs poorly in a test for say, a front end collisions against a concrete barrier, traveling at 55 mph, hitting at a 90 degree angle, it can be determined that you don't want to hit a concrete barrier at 90 degrees, traveling at 55 mph in this vehicle. You can even make the general determination that the vehicle's front end protection is poor or inadequate.
If the vehicle performs well in this test, the determination about overall safety may become somewhat more dicey. For instance, many car makers will quote results from crash testing in advertisements touting that the vehicle received a five star rating in front end crash testing however, they neglect to reveal how it performed in other testing, or if in fact any other testing has been performed. All of this in no way reflects on the organizations performing the tests, and the car makers may well be trying to make the safest vehicle possible. It is more a matter inherent to the limitations of the systems and costs to do the tests.
Helmets are generally cheaper than most automobiles. This allows for a greater scope of testing to be done. Snell is very specific about the performance requirements for each certified helmet model. Every helmet that is tested to Snell Standards, either for certification, or in our random testing program is impacted at least 8 to 9 times at 4 or 5 different locations that can vary based on the test technicians observations, and best judgment. For certification, we can evaluate a helmet model with impacts to as many as 20 different locations. Furthermore, since the testing impact sites are not dictated, the testing technicians can inspect each helmet closely to determine the areas of greatest concern.
Snell's RST (Random Sample Testing) program is an extension of the certification testing. When helmets are acquired for random testing, whenever possible we get them from stocks intended for sale to consumers, or for distribution to end users. Most come from private distributors, retail stores as well as catalog and online dealers. All of these helmets are tested in the same manner to confirm that the manufacturer is keeping up their quality control. Snell will test as many as 1000 helmets in our random testing program this year. For the most popular and biggest selling helmet brands, as many as 150 to 200 samples may be tested each year.
Batch testing is another form of compliance checking. It is a common method used by many European and other country's Governmental Standards as well as some of the private ones. Batch test schemes are used to test many types of products.
It's called a batch test is because a manufacturer will produce a batch of product and be required to submit a certain number of samples from the batch for testing, or in some cases test data collected by the manufacturer of these products to the organization requiring the test. The drawbacks of batch testing are that the system may be manipulated too easily. Unscrupulous manufacturers could make sure the tests performed on their products in their own lab, or by a hired one, indicate that they technically are in compliance with the requirements of the standard. Additionally, if it is required that the batch helmet samples are tested at an outside source, it is possible to make sure the helmets selected will perform as required.
The potential benefit of batch testing is that if everything is operating idyllically, and inferior batch of helmets can be identified and distribution halted until the problem is corrected.
Over the years, Snell has tried to implement batch programs to supplement the RST program, but have consistently seen that the Snell RST program tends to successfully find inferior product more readily.
The specific answer is yes and no. If the helmet model and size you have is certified and in good standing with Snell, samples of that model and size helmet have been tested to determine if the design, manufacturing processes and materials used meet the requirements of the Snell standard. Since helmet testing is destructive, helmets that have undergone any type of testing are destroyed in the process. If your helmet has been tested, it's time for a new one.
Buying a helmet is much like buying anything that is important to you. You should choose a helmet based on its ability to do the job it's intended for, regardless of whether or not it's to satisfy a law or if you want the best protection available. First you need to decide about the things that matter to you. There are a number of items that are important in finding a helmet that suits you. Snell recommends the following no matter what helmet you buy:
1. Fit - Make sure that the size and shape of the helmet are suited to your head. Sizing in helmets, even many of the numerical sizes may not be consistent from brand to brand or even model to model. Additionally make sure the retaining system is effective comfortable and easy to use.
2. Comfort - Make sure the helmet is as comfortable to wear as possible. It is likely to be on your head for a while and it should not become so annoying that you are distracted from the important task of riding safely. Also, choose an appropriate helmet for the type of riding you will do most frequently and the environment you're riding in. Full face helmets offer a measure of protection from impacts to the face, and flying debris like cigarette butts and gravel as well as helping to avoid the dreaded insectus dentus adhesion affliction, or "Bug Tooth Syndrome". Full face helmets do tend to retain more heat though which is a consideration as well.
3. Style - This may seem trivial and not related to safety, but it does have its place. Get a helmet you like. For many riding is a big part of their life. It's not just transportation, but also an important recreational activity, even a lifestyle. It is common sense to conclude that a rider is more likely to consistently wear something he or she likes rather than something that they do not.
4. Safety - The only thing that can be added is that Snell has been concerning itself solely with helmets and head protection for over fifty years. Our focus does not include trying to sell you a helmet, trying to require you wear a helmet or trying to limit the innovation of helmets. For years Snell has merely tried to educate consumers about the importance of a good helmet and point riders who are concerned with protecting the stuff between their ears toward helmets that perform to the Snell Standards.
Whenever I choose anything I buy, I consider this analogy:
A woman walks into the local butcher shop and after examining the contents of the meat case asks the man behind the counter; "Is the sirloin fresh?"
The true answer to that question depends more on what you know than the actual reply.