Assessing the level of safety provided by the Snell B95 standard for bicycle helmets

Changes have been made to the Trade Practices Act intended to legalise the sale in Australia of bicycle helmets meeting the American Snell B95 Standard. These changes have been made as part of the regular review of the mandatory consumer product safety standard for pedal cyclists under the Trade Practices Act 1974 as the current regulation, which was based on AS 2063.2- 1990 and had become outdated, Department of the Treasury (1999). The State and Territory road authorities have not accepted the changes. Specifically, the road authorities have expressed concern regarding two areas:
  • The lack of a quality assurance process for Snell-certified helmets on the Australian market; and,

  • Whether the technical differences between the Snell B95 and AS/NZS2063 standards reflect significant differences in the level of safety provided by helmets to these two standards.
The aim of this project was to assess whether the differences between the technical requirements and quality assurance approaches used by the Snell B95 and AS/NZS 2063:1996 standards for bicycle helmets are likely to result in significant differences in the level of safety provided to the user. This was done by:
  • Reviewing existing studies of bicycle helmet effectiveness;

  • Testing representative samples of helmets to both standards; and,

  • Considering the role of the quality assurance regime within the manufacturing process, and the need for some form of external quality assurance process conducted by independent testing laboratories.
The Snell Memorial Foundation is a not-for profit organization, which tests and certifies various kinds of helmets for use in specific activities. Snell uses a two-part process consisting of:

Certification Testing – The manufacturer submits sample helmets to Snell, which are subjected to the testing required by the Standard at a Snell laboratory. The helmet receives certification when these tests are completed successfully.

Random Sample Testing – The Foundation acquires samples directly from consumer sources such as retail outlets. The helmets are inspected and tested in the Snell laboratory to the requirements of the Snell standard.

In the USA the CPSC Regulation for Bicycle Helmets became law in 1998. The manufacturer or importer self certifies the helmet to the Regulation. As part of the certification the manufacturer is required to keep full records for three years of a 'reasonable test program' in support of the certification and these must be available on call.

For a helmet to be certified to the AS/NZS 2036-1996 standard, it must pass the following set of requirements:
  • Manufacturers Quality Plan audit by SAI-Global.

  • Type Testing of samples of the production helmets by an accredited laboratory to the requirements of the standard. From this point the design of the helmet is frozen, any changes require a re-certification.

  • Batch Release Testing, as production precedes each batch of the product is kept under bond and are not released for sale until a specified number of samples are tested.
The effectiveness of the bicycle helmet quality system currently in use in Australia is demonstrated by only one public recall of bicycle helmets (in 1998) occurring in the last five years, of a relatively small number of helmets. In the USA in the same time span 8 public recalls of a total of 331,900 helmets have been made. Recalls are relatively ineffective for maintaining safety of personal equipment, as it is difficult to get the publicity to the user effectively. The Snell Memorial Foundation has never successfully initiated and completed a recall against its range of voluntary standards.