If you wear a full-face helmet, chances are you chose this type of helmet for its protective qualities. But what about the difference in levels of protection between different makes and models of full-face helmet? In the U.S. there isn’t much information to go on. Helmet safety certification uses a pass/fail system: a helmet either earns a DOT-approved (or, in some cases, Snell-approved) rating or it doesn’t. In the United Kingdom that’s changed with the government’s “Safety Helmet Assessment and Ratings Programme,” better known as SHARP.
The key word there is “Rating,” as in the 1- thru 5-star rating that SHARP assigns to helmets. According to the program, the more stars, the better protection a helmet can give. SHARP is “unique in providing a scaling to helmet performance,” says Anna McCreadie, of the U.K.’s Department for Transport, the government agency that conducts the SHARP testing. The U.K. government created SHARP in the hope that it would arm motorcyclists with more knowledge about the helmets they choose. As McCreadie explains: “SHARP is a comparative test designed to give motorcyclists more detailed information about the likely performance of different helmets in a collision. All the helmets available for sale in the U.K. must meet certain minimum standards—SHARP gives consumers information about how well helmets perform beyond those minimum standards.” SHARP tests have found differences in performance of as much as 70 percent between high- and low-scoring helmets.
In addition to rating each helmet between 1 and 5 stars, SHARP provides diagrams showing the specific impact areas tested on the helmet. The diagrams depict regions of the helmet, for example the forehead or temples, and use color codes to illustrate how well that portion of the helmet fared in testing. A helmet may have done well in the forehead area (thus receiving a green color code), but only marginally in the temples (a red color code). Again, the philosophy is that more information is better.
SHARP is also unconventional in that it tests only helmets purchased directly from retail outlets. SHARP believes that it is important to ensure the helmets tested are the same as those available to the public. In contrast, organizations like Snell conduct their testing on sample helmets submitted by manufacturers. Snell does, in addition, test random samples of helmets meant for sale or distribution to the general public, but this is not the sole source of its test helmets – as is the case with SHARP. Indeed, manufacturers often do not even know that SHARP is testing their product. This is another difference from Snell, where manufacturers initiate the process by requesting that Snell test their helmets.
Manufacturers are not brought into the process until after SHARP has conducted its testing. They are advised of the SHARP rating before it is published and they can lodge an appeal if SHARP’s measured data does not match what they have seen in development or production testing. The goal is to ensure that the SHARP rating is representative of the helmet’s performance. McCreadie explains the process: “We share our test data with [the manufacturers], which provides an external quality check. If a manufacturer can show clear differences between their own data and that provided to them by SHARP, we will carry out repeat tests which they are invited to witness. The outputs from those tests are final and are used to validate the published rating.” Ultimately, SHARP’s results are released whether or not the manufacturer agrees with them.
As for SHARP’s test regimen, it is extensive. SHARP personnel conduct 32 tests on seven helmets across a range of sizes for every helmet model. The tests are conducted by impacting each helmet against two types of anvils, one to represent flat surfaces and one for curbs. Some of the tests are linear, where the helmet is impacted ‘head on’ in various impact zones ranging from the front, top, back, right and left sides. Other tests are oblique, measuring the helmet’s frictional properties as it glances off an object at an angle (think helmet bouncing along the pavement while a rider is sliding). In addition, SHARP touts the fact that its tests are carried out at three different speeds (one at the ECE standard, one above and one below) to ensure that the helmet provides good protection during both high- and low-severity impacts.
When the testing is complete, SHARP compares the results with real-world injury data from the COST 327 study (the most thorough investigation of motorcycle crashes conducted in Europe). This comparison leads to the final SHARP star rating. Suffice it to say, the process is rigorous—of the 247 helmet models SHARP has rated so far, only 30 received the 5-star rating.
So, just how useful is SHARP for would-be helmet buyers in the U.S.? The answer depends on which helmets you’re considering. Many of the helmets sold in the U.S. are not sold in Europe, and vice versa. For instance, I recently acquired a SNELL-approved Bell Star helmet. Though comfortable and confidence-inspiring, my new Bell Star has not been tested by SHARP. In fact, Bell is an entirely different company in the U.S. than its same-named counterpart in Europe. So U.S. buyers must be savvy when using SHARP. If you want to rely on a SHARP rating, you may wish to check with the helmet manufacturer to be certain the model you are considering is the same as a comparably-named (or somewhat different named) model sold in Europe. That way you know that the one SHARP evaluated is the same as what is available in the U.S. SHARP’s ratings can be found at http://sharp.direct.gov.uk/.
Though SHARP appears to test only a small number of U.S.-market helmets and therefore has limited applicability for buyers in the U.S., its approach seems to be valuable. It gives riders more information than a simple pass/fail rating, thereby allowing them to consider the relative safety of one helmet compared to another. It could be time for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which produces the DOT standards in the U.S., to consider a numerical system similar to the SHARP program. The rating system would not have to be a substitute for the minimum pass/fail standards, they could remain in place. Instead, like SHARP, the system could evaluate how helmets perform above and beyond the bare minimum standard for a passing grade. This might be at least as valid a consideration in buying a helmet as whether to go with stripes, stars, or skulls on the graphics.
We do realize, of course, that not all helmet manufacturers necessarily agree that the SHARP testing methods are valid, or that the conclusions reached by SHARP are valid (this could apply to Snell and DOT as well). Nevertheless, SHARP appears to be a good faith effort to provide valuable information to consumers.
Courtney Olive lives in Portland, OR where he and the Sang-Froid Riding Club excavate the essence of motorcycling.