How To Recognize A Novelty Helmet


Due to the recent changes in Michigan's Motorcycle Helmet Law, individuals meeting certain requirements are no longer legally required to wear a motorcycle helmet. However, the Michigan State Police recommends that all motorcycle riders use proper restraints at all times.

As a law enforcement officer it is sometimes difficult to determine at a glance whether a helmet is United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) approved or not.  (See Unsafe Motorcycle Helmets, a NHTSA publication)

This document will provide officers with the knowledge to enable them to make a reasonable determination as to the type of helmets they may encounter and a sound basis for conducting a traffic stop.


The authority to conduct a traffic stop for a civil infraction is found in section 257.742 of the Michigan Vehicle Code.  "A peace officer who witnesses a person violating this act or a local ordinance substantially corresponding to this act, which violation is a civil infraction, may stop the person, detain the person temporarily…and prepare and subscribe…an original and 3 copies of a written citation…"

The term "witness" in this context means "A reasonable belief that the person committed the offense."  Reasonableness is based on the officers training, experience, and knowledge of the law.

In judicial terms, the responsibility of a person for a civil infraction is based on a "preponderance of the evidence" which equates to whether proof of the violation was "more likely than not" rather than "beyond a reasonable doubt" the standard of proof in criminal matters.

Administrative Rule

Per the Michigan Administrative Code Rule R 28.951, only motorcycle helmets meeting all of the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 218 are legal for use in Michigan for those legally required to wear one.

Helmets At a Glance

The vast majority of violations that ultimately lead to a traffic stop are brief events that are witnessed by a law enforcement officer while on routine patrol. The entire encounter may be only seconds in duration and the officer must be able to make a reasonable determination based on what they have witnessed.

At-A-Glance Probable USDOT Compliant

Helmets typically are manufactured in three distinct styles.

Full Face Helmet Open Face HelmetShorty Helmet

Full Face                              Open Face                      Shorty

Full face and open face helmets are readily identifiable as "probably" being USDOT approved.  We use the term "probably" because it is possible to alter these helmets in a way that renders them in illegal for use on a public roadway.

The Problem

The "shorty" helmet is sometimes difficult to recognize at a glance whether this helmet is USDOT or Novelty.

The following photographs will assist law enforcement in making that split second determination. As a general rule, this type of USDOT helmet is noticeably different from a novelty type helmet when observed on a person. Because of their design, they will appear bulkier than non-approved helmets. If the helmet appears to have a streamlined fit, close to the head, then it is probably a novelty type helmet.

Examples of USDOT "Shorty" style helmets

DOT liner2DOT liner2

DOT liner2DOT back1

USDOT helmet - side and rear views

Examples of a Typical Novelty Type Helmet

DOT back1novelty back

novelty back1

Novelty helmet - side and rear views 

Upon Closer Examination

Further evidence will be gained by a closer inspection of the helmet. The following guidelines are useful in recognizing approved helmets:

Labeling USDOT Approved:

  • Manufacturer's name or identification
  • Precise model designation
  • Size
  • Month and year of manufacture
  • Instructions to the purchaser regarding construction and other safety-related information

DOT label

An example of the label inside a USDOT approved helmet

Labeling Novelty Type:

Most novelty type helmets will either have a disclaimer that the helmet is not intended for street use, is not intended as safety equipment, for display purposes only, etc., or have no labeling at all.

novelty label

An example of the label inside a novelty helmet

USDOT Symbol:

  • The symbol "DOT" constitutes the manufacturer's certification that the helmet conforms to the applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards. The symbol shall appear on the posterior outer surface, in a color that contrasts with the background, in letters at least 3/8 inch high, and between 1 1/8 inches and 1 3/8 inches from the bottom edge of the helmet.

USDOT StickerUSDOT StickerUSDOT Sticker

Three examples of USDOT stickers

  • It is important to note that an approved helmet may no longer bear the DOT sticker if it has been removed, or covered by a custom paint job. Also, contraband DOT stickers can be obtained for the purpose of applying them to unapproved helmets. The application of a DOT sticker to an unapproved helmet does NOT make it a legal helmet in Michigan.

Liner USDOT:

The most important difference between approved USDOT and "Novelty" helmets is the ability of the approved helmet to absorb impact forces. This impact absorbing capability is provided by the polyfoam inner liner of the helmet.

As a general rule, the thickness of the polyfoam inner liner will be at least 1 inch.

Lined Helmet OutsideLined Helmet Inside

The liner from an approved USDOT helmet that has been removed for illustration purposes. Note that the polyfoam liner is approximately 1 ¼ inches in thickness.

DOT liner2

This is the easiest way to detect helmets not meeting federal standards, as most novelty helmets are nothing more than a shell with a very thin liner or pad for comfort.

Liner Novelty:

Most novelty type helmets will have a thin fabric liner or no liner at all.  For this reason they appear to fit the person better than a USDOT approved helmet. This fact alone will give the law enforcement officer reasonable basis for a traffic stop and conducting a more thorough examination of the helmet.

DOT liner2

In this photograph you can see that this novelty helmet has no impact absorbing liner whatsoever.  It is a fiberglass shell with a foam sweat band and sprayed in foam material approximately 1/8th inch thick.

Other Factors:

  • Chin straps must be sturdy, thick, and well-riveted.
  • Protrusions outside of the helmet shall be limited to those required for operation of essential accessories and shall not protrude more than 2/10 inch.