How Bicycle Helmets are Tested
Summary: This page describes the lab tests that bike helmets must pass to meet the CPSC standard. There is other testing related to lead content that we do not cover. CPSC has a video of this testing up on their website.
The testing to certify a helmet to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission's standard for bicycle helmets can be described in six steps.
1. Samples requiredThe lab must procure samples of the helmet model. Full compliance testing requires 16 samples. The lab also needs a number from the manufacturer called the Helmet Positioning Index (HPI). It specifies the measurement to place the helmet correctly on the headform.
2. MarkingThe lab technician puts the first sample on a test headform the right size to fit it. The headform is mounted upright on a stand, usually on a flat table. The helmet is adjusted using the HPI and then a 5 kilogram (10.x pound) cloth bag filled with lead shot is placed on it to compress any fitting foam inside. A marker on a stand is adjusted to the right level, using a measurement from a table in the standard that varies by helmet size. With the marker against the helmet the test line is marked by either rotating the helmet or sliding the marker stand around it. Each sample is marked in turn.
The lab test impacts must all be centered on or above the test line. The area below the line is not tested, although the "footprint" of an impact centered on the test line will extend below the line, and the helmet is not likely to pass if there is no material there. To get an idea of where the test line falls, you can take a medium-sized helmet and mark the line xx mm below the top. Put that helmet on your head and you will see that the test line is probably higher than it should be, and the area of the helmet tested is really not large enough. The Snell Memorial Foundation's bicycle helmet standard has a lower test line. Even the old ANSI standard adopted in 1984 had a lower test line.
3. ConditioningHelmets are tested hot, wet, cold and room temperature. Four samples are heated to Four samples are chilled to Four samples are soaked in water. Four samples are tested dry and room temperature.
4. Strap testNext comes the strap strength and "rolloff" testing. Here is one test rig. There are other designs, but they all function the same.
Photos from the CPSC test lab in Gaithersburg, MD
5. Drop testsThe helmet is now ready for drop testing. It is strapped onto a headform, held upside down on a test rig that guides its fall onto an anvil. This rig in the CPSC lab is a monorail, and the drop is guided by a single rail. Others use two parallel wires (twinwire).
6. RecordsThe CPSC standard requires the lab to keep records of the testing. That includes data on the helmet and data on performance.
Pass or FailThe bottom line is that the helmet must pass all of the tests described above. If it fails on any of them, it cannot be certified to the standard. You don't meet a standard "except for . . ." A failure on any element of the tests is a complete failure.
We have more on testing and standards
And elsewhere you can find
This page was revised on: December 14, 2020.