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How Should a Bicycle Helmet Law
Deal with Standards

Summary: Changes in bicycle helmet standards require changes in helmet law references to standards.


In the early years of bicycle helmet laws there was no US law requiring that bicycle helmets meet any standard at all. Junk helmets could be sold, and were. For that reason helmet promotion campaigns, and the mandatory helmet laws they inspired, emphasized that a helmet should be "approved" and meet one of the voluntary standards of the time. In the US that included the weak ANSI standard and the much stronger ASTM and Snell Memorial Foundation standards. At that time most helmet laws referenced those standards, or used a clause that said the state police would designate the standards that a helmet should meet.

In the 1990's that situation began to change. The venerable ANSI Z90.4 standard, adopted in 1984, passed its tenth birthday without being updated and was administratively withdrawn by ANSI. An attempt to harmonize it with the ASTM standard initially failed, leaving only ASTM and Snell as the voluntary standards in the field.

The US Government Steps In . . Reluctantly

In 1989 a coalition of injury prevention and safety groups led by Safe Kids (and including BHSI) petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to adopt a legally-required US helmet standard. CPSC refused, limited by the provision of its charter that prevents it from adopting a standard for a product if there are voluntary standards already working. The coalition turned to Capitol Hill and succeeded in having a law passed that directed CPSC to ignore that limitation in this case and adopt a standard. CPSC did so, and their final standard took effect in 1999. All bicycle helmets manufactured after March 10, 1999, for sale in the US market must by law meet the CPSC bicycle helmet standard. It does not cover helmets made before 1998 at all, and it does not cover skateboard, equestrian, surfing, soccer or any other type of helmet but bicycle helmets. We regard the CPSC standard as a good one, comparable to ASTM and Snell despite the fact that it has not been updated since it took effect in 1999.

ANSI Cleans Up Its Act

In the late 1990's ANSI agreed to adopt the ASTM standard to replace ANSI Z90.4. The action took years to actually take effect, however, and it was not until well into the 21st century that you could call ANSI and ask for the old standard and be told that the new one had replaced it. By 2005 it was clearly established. So any reference to ANSI for a new helmet has now been updated by the action of the organization itself unless the full citation ANSI Z90.4--1984 was used, referring specifically to the 1984 version.

Language in Mandatory Helmet Laws

Some of the older helmet laws in various states and localities in the US still have language embedded in them that specifies that a helmet must meet the ANSI, ASTM or Snell standard to be legal. That language has two potential drawbacks. First, it continues to bless helmets made in the past that can only meet the weaker, withdrawn ANSI standard. But ANSI helmets in that era were not junk, so we do not consider the problem acute. And that problem has faded as the old helmets cycle to landfills. More importantly, the old language fails to acknowledge what had by early 2000 become the predominant and eventually the only sticker found inside bicycle helmets: the one stating that it meets the CPSC standard.

The lack of acknowledgment of the CPSC standard could perhaps be a bigger problem if a law enforcement officer should ever actually look inside a rider's helmet to see what sticker is inside. We think that is not actually happening in the real world. The older laws are being amended when they are reviewed for other changes, such as raising the age limit or adding scooters and skateboards. But there are many court cases involving helmets, and the language in a State law should not disadvantage the helmet wearer because it is obsolete.

If we were working on language for a new law or for a revision, we would either eliminate any reference to standards or specify the suggested language below. With the CPSC standard now US Law for more than five years, there may be no need for any reference to standards at all. As time has passed since March 10, 1999, it has become increasingly unlikely and now a rare event that a rider might find in a store a bicycle helmet that does not meet the CPSC standard. The only reason to include standards language that we can think of is to discourage those who may ride their bicycle in a non-bicycle helmet like a construction worker's helmet or a skateboard helmet that is not designed for the impacts experienced in bicycling. That seems a more compelling arguement than the millions of "legacy" helmets out there made before the CPSC standard was passed, some of them very good and capable of meeting the CPSC standard, but others not quite up to that level. Many injury prevention people and consumers have been raised on the "approved" concept and would need to be educated as to why standards language is no longer necessary. Lawyers are even more conservative, and will almost universally want to update the standards requirement rather than eliminate it. Finally, the accepted standard is usually a bone of contention in legal cases involving injury in a helmet. So although we might prefer a simpler law without specifying standards, it will probably be deemed necessary to have that language in anyway.

For a law designed to stay relevant for the next decade or so--at least until 2015--we would recommend that if standards language is to be included in the law at all it should refer first to the CPSC standard, the law of the land. Although we are members of the ASTM committee that sets the ASTM bicycle helmet standard, and we have respect for the sometimes more stringent standards of the Snell Memorial Foundation, the only reason we see to include ASTM or Snell would be primarily to ensure that riders wearing legacy helmets are not disadvantaged in court because the helmet did not have a CPSC sticker.

If the law is to be updated by including scooters, skateboards and other conveyances in addition to bicycles, the standards language becomes more complicated, since skateboarders in particular need a different helmet capable of handling multiple impacts, and there is a different ASTM standard for that. There are also skateboard helmets on the market that meet no US standard at all, permitted by the fact that the CPSC legislation specified bicycle helmets and did not leave any flexibility for CPSC to set a skateboard helmet standard. So the language we recommend below will not permit the use of some helmets still being sold here in skateboard shops. Some are identified by a sticker saying they meet a European standard, EN , which turns out to be for whitwater sports. For background you can see our page on skateboard-bicycle helmet issues.

The State of Louisiana has solved the problem of providing for both current and legacy helmets to be acceptable by using a provision requiring CPSC certification for helmets manufactured after March, 1999 and permitting ANSI or Snell helmets if made prior to that date. Our only criticism of their language is that they did not include ASTM in the legacy standards. The text of their law is available on the Web.

We also recommend looking at the Hernando, MS, law passed in 2010 as one that covers all the bases and has up-to-date language on standards.

Since the laws differ considerably in their structure and language there is not much hope that the clauses suggested below will be directly applicable, but the intent should be clear. The provision on skateboard helmets would be option depending on what is being covered by the law.

The bottom line: our recommended language:

A bicycle helmet shall meet or exceed the minimum bicycle helmet safety standards set by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the American National Standards Institute ANSI, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), or the Snell Memorial Foundation. A skateboard helmet must meet one of the above standards or the ASTM F1492 skateboard helmet standard.


This page was updated or partially revised on: October 6, 2016. BHSI logo
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