Modular motorcycle helmets have become very popular among motorcyclists due to their versatility and convenience. Flip the front up and your face is exposed for easy communication with your pillion or another rider.
The surge in home-delivered food has also seen modular helmet popularity rise as delivery riders can flip their helmets up when collecting from restaurants and while talking to customers, as opposed to needing to remove their full-face helmet at every stop.
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There is the elusive question that surrounds them though, which is “are they as safe as a standard full-face helmet in the event of an accident?”
I have researched extensively in order to provide you with the most accurate answer to the question, “are modular helmets safe?”
How Safe Are Modular Helmets?
The general consensus seems to be that modular helmets are not as safe as full-face helmets, however, this consensus appears to be based heavily on opinion rather than actual facts.
While modular helmets have no difficulty becoming DOT-approved in the United States, there are currently no Snell-approved modular helmets. This leads consumers to assume that modular helmets are just not safe.
However, there are numerous modular helmets approved to the ECE 22.05 certification, which many industry experts deem superior to DOT approval and equal to Snell’s testing standards, thus leading to more confusion.
There are several points to consider when discussing how safe modular helmets are including different standards for testing motorcycle helmets, the specification at which modular helmets are held accountable to and also sometimes it just comes down to common sense and picking the right helmet for the right purpose. Let’s dig a little deeper into these points now.
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Motorcycle Helmets Safety Standards
In the US, the two main safety standards when it comes to motorcycle helmets are DOT and Snell.
DOT – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, (NHSA) have a set of standards that manufacturers need to comply with in order to self-certify as legal for road use and they can put a DOT (Department of Transportation) sticker on the back of their helmets.
The DOT standards are considered quite minimal, with manufacturers needing to meet the bare necessities in order to pass the testing which consists of 3 stages: an impact test, penetration test and chin-strap test.
Snell – Snell is considered the more rigorous testing authority and has a higher set of standards for manufacturers to meet before being approved. The latest version of the standard is called M2020D or M2020R, most helmets in the US passing Snell testing will be awarded the D certification, as the M2020R standard is for those helmets that want Snell as well as ECE (European) certification.
There are 6 stages to the Snell testing, you can read in detail about the stages here.
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ECE 22:05 standards which apply to Europe and many other countries around the world, including Australia, are considered to be on par with the Snell testing.
Britain’s Sharp testing was introduced in a similar way to Snell in the US; to complement the ECE 22:05 standard and to do more extensive testing.
What does all this mean?
In summary it is easier for manufacturers to get their helmets DOT approved in the US due to the somewhat minimal standards of testing required, which is why there are many modular helmets with DOT approval which includes the top-end Shoei Neotec 2 and the lower-end Scorpion EXO-AT950.
However, there are currently no Snell approved modular helmets on the market.
There are however, a selection of ECE 22:05 certified modular helmets that are also DOT approved available on the US market including the AGV Sportmodular and HJC i90. This goes some way to suggesting that the European governing body deems these modular helmets to be safe by similar standards to that of which Snell upholds.
This begs the question then, why are there so few Snell approved modular helmets?
Ride Apart did an interview with Edward B. Becker, Executive Director of the Snell Memorial Foundation and in summary, he says that he wants manufacturers to put forward their modular helmets for testing; but on the back of that, they will be tested in the same capacity and held to the same standards as a full-face helmet.
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So, Snell wants to test modular helmets, but manufacturers aren’t putting them forward for testing, this could be down to the fact that they don’t want the added expense of the independent Snell certification and the DOT approval is considered enough for them. Or perhaps they are worried about not passing the testing process.
It is worth noting too that some leading manufacturers like Arai have their own independent testing facilities with state-of-the-art impact testing equipment, etc. and so it would be strange to think that these leading manufacturers would produce a helmet that couldn’t meet the high safety standards required by Snell.
Schuberth will even have a helmet sent back to their factory to be x-rayed to check for damage if a customer has dropped it. I struggle to believe that a company that goes to such lengths would be producing a modular helmet that isn’t safe.
The Shoei Neotec 2 is the pinnacle of a modular touring helmet, DOT approved and ECE 22:05 certified, but received only 4 stars out of 5 on Sharp’s rating scale.
Thus suggesting that there is something in Sharp’s testing that makes the Neotec less safe than the 5 star rated full-face Shoei RYD (RF-SR in the U.S.).
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Comparing a motorcycle touring helmet that will be used within the legal speed limits on normal roads with a full-face built for racing purposes, where some features only kick in over 150mph, and subjecting them to the same level of testing seems somewhat biased.
Perhaps there needs to be a review on how Snell and Sharp approach modular helmets and subject them to more accurate testings for the real-world use they are built for. The responsibility also lies with helmet manufacturers to put their helmets forward for these tests.
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There have been criticisms of both Snell and Sharp with their testing not being totally accurate.
This is best illustrated when a $50 polycarbonate helmet gets a higher rating than that of a $700 race helmet. The rating being based on an outdated penetration test with the $50 helmets outer shell being solid and rejecting the test spike scoring higher; when modern technology has shown that an outer shell that is flexible and absorbs energy on impact is far more effective at protecting the riders head from injury.
There are many modular helmets approved by DOT that are also certified to the ECE 22:05 standards that require the helmets to be tested more rigorously.
This would suggest that modular motorcycle helmets are safe for the conditions that they are built to be ridden in.
A full-face Snell approved helmet would give you extra peace of mind and be far more logical to be used if riding a sports bike on the track.
The most important thing no matter the helmet brand, style etc. is to go for the one that fits you best. If it fits you right then that is the helmet that will protect your head the most. An ill-fitting helmet is far more dangerous than any modular or indeed open-face helmet on the market.