What is the “Safest” Bicycle Helmet?
It doesn’t seem to matter how experienced you are as a cyclist, at some point, you’ll likely end up on the ground. But will you get hurt?
The other day on an amazingly fun descent of Pikes Peak (via Barr trail), I miss judged a root, and tagged the forward pedal. Next thing I knew I was in the air. It seemed like several seconds (though I’m sure it was fractions), then there was only dirt, rocks and pine needles.
Fortunately, I missed the big rocks, but landing on your head is never a good thing. I sat there a few seconds and evaluated how I was feeling. Pretty good actually, nothing with pain more than skin deep, so I guess I survived another one.
That’s the event that started my “quest”. Funny how, too, because I took off the helmet to empty out the dirt and debris, but it didn’t fit the same when I put it back on. No, it wasn’t my head, the helmet changed shape in the impact. There are no noticeable cracks or distress, except it is now a little wider and not as long. Fascinating.
The Quest: What is the Safest Bicycle Helmet?
“Oh, just go buy one.” I’m told. Yet, there’s an itch that needs a scratch. It’s an engineering fetish that stems from endless curiosity. In fairness, however, and also as a disclaimer, though I’ve learned a ton about bicycle helmet safety on this little quest, I am not an expert. The notes below, and in Part 2, are simply points that stood out in research, mixed with engineering judgement and my opinion. Yet, the opinions come after reading tons, and having some conversations with those that are experts.
Finding the safest bicycle helmet is about learning, and understanding what the industry provides. It’s also learning about what the safest bicycle helmet might actually include. And yes, endless learning is part of who we are.
For practicalities sake, I am limiting the Quest to bicycle types. I know a Full Face Motorcycle touring helmet is “safer” just because of the size and intended function, but it would not be practical on a hot day cycling up Pikes Peak. For that matter, I’ve excluded full face bicycle helmets for the same reason.
One truth about safety: If it’s too inconvenient, too difficult, or too uncomfortable, people will just skip it. I can’t imagine doing a summer bike race with my full face Shoei Motorcycle helmet.?.!
The Technologies of Bicycle Helmet Safety
There are many braggs on the market about safety. Some companies claim they pass one standard, others brag a different standard, and some claim them all. There’s Multi-Density EPS, and MIPS, and Koroyd, and Omni-Directional Suspension all saying they’re the best, but when you dig into the technical stuff, a lot of the experts say they’re not so sure.
So what is it? Is one technology really safer than another for impact? Or is it all propaganda? More important, why is there no published data? (To me, this is an outrage! We have to believe their advertising because they won’t publish actual data.)
By far, the most common technology is the time tested and well proven Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam. It’s been around for a long time, so is it just the old stand-by? Not really. The technologies of EPS have also evolved with time. Yet, because it works and because it’s been around a long time, is it the safest bicycle helmet technology? Or is it the material all the testing protocols are built around? Or in the end, is it still a just a styrofoam cup you put on your head?
From the standpoint of finding the safest bicycle helmet, this content is about impact protection, not lights or reflectivity or warning sensors. Admittedly, those can improve safety, and we’re in favor of improvement, but that’s not the fundamental reason for wearing a helmet. Also, those new technologies don’t help in some circumstances. Trees, for instance, don’t pay attention to flashing lights.
The Legal Barrier
Why can’t we get good information — like real data — about Bicycle Helmet Safety? Some of the marketing of the above mentioned technologies elude to theirs being “Better” or “Safer”, but they don’t provide real evidence. If a technology is really better, why can’t they show us what’s really up?
The best answer to this question comes from a source not wanting acknowledgement. They said “everyone’s hiding behind the legal barrier fearing that someone will sue them for what they might show.” I agree, safety is a hot button, and if you gave data reflecting poorly on another specific competitor, you are likely to end up in court. That argument is supported by backlash in the industry when Consumer Reports did their own bicycle helmet safety testing.
Secondly, if they show their helmet is “safer”, then, someone tests that theory in some impressive way but ends up a vegetable, what are the legal liabilities? We live in a sue happy — it’s your fault regardless of my stupidity — type of world.
What a pitty. The legal CYA is blinding the customer, leaving us to sort through marketing propaganda to infer some sort of truth. So, that’s exactly where my quest goes — right into the soup. It will take some sorting to find the safest bicycle helmet.
What Do We Know About Bicycle Helmet Safety?
A lot, but many of the details are foggy. Yet, these are some things worth noting.
We can change the effect of an impact by lengthening the time in which it acts on our head. It’s not really “absorbing” the energy as is common to say, rather, it’s delaying some of the energy transfer. Think of it as spreading it out over time. Your head (and helmet) at a certain velocity just before impact have a set kinetic energy that will be accounted for by nature. If you impact the head suddenly (no helmet), then there is more impulse on the brain. If you can slow the impact — make it take more time by crushing something (like the helmet material), then the brain has less to deal with. (Oh, and your head is less likely to bounce and have a repeat impact.)
There are standards for bicycle helmet safety. The standards differ somewhat, but in the USA, for instance, the helmets all pass the lowest common denominator defined as “safe”. Basically they say your head won’t likely break open if you fall off your bike. What that really means to you and I in a crash is unknown.
We know that variations between standards are confusing to normal people, and making sense of what real-world influence the tests are simulating is difficult. Of all the times I’ve fallen or gone over the bars, I have never fallen directly straight down and landed on an anvil, then not hit anything else immediately after. Nevertheless, there are tests that include impact, and the helmets you can buy at the store pass them.
There are no gradients in the ratings for passing tests — like A, B, C — (Or better yet, numbers or graphs) — only pass or fail. They don’t even follow the automobile crash testing standards of stars or something like that. Pass/Fail is all you get, and they don’t even bother to tell us what tests it actually passed, how many samples where used, and how they derive the “Pass” score. Of course, there are differences from helmet to helmet, but no one publishes that data. (See Legal above.)
Any bicycle helmet with a certification will offer at least the level of safety defined by the standard. It’s an assumption the tests are created and run by people interested in our safety, but we think that’s a reasonable assumption. So, if a helmet has the certification tag, then it will offer a significant level of impact protection. And, effectively every helmet for sale (at least in the USA) has a certification.
As a society, we are learning so much more about the significance of trauma to the brain. The effects last much longer than we once thought, and the levels of impact to cause injury are much lower than previously assumed. This puts emphasis on protection. Anything we can do to mitigate the effects of impact will help us in the long run.
In any incident involving impact to the head, spreading the energy envelope is beneficial. (As opposed to taking the sharp edge of a rock right to the skull.) The helmet design will do just that, and generally they all do it pretty well. Wearing a helmet, any helmet, is smart. See the point above again.
The most important factor for bicycle helmet safety is fit and restraint. If the helmet does not set on your head properly, or if it’s too loose, it won’t give you the protection available. That’s easy to achieve. Use a helmet that fits you well, then adjust the straps and fasten it properly. Comfort is also important with bicycle helmets. In the work we’ve done coaching, helmets that are comfortable get worn more, and are usually setup better.
If you want more good reading on available knowledge, I found a ton of really useful information and perspectives at Helmets.org
So, What Don’t We Know?
What the helmet companies won’t say is how well the helmets passed, or comparatively how they do in testing. From a practical sense then, it gives helmet manufacturers no incentive to exceed the tests. There is no reason to do better than the competition or give customers something more than just style and color to choose.
Since we don’t really know how the helmets do, it begs questions about cost. Do more expensive helmets offer better protection? I’ve heard it a hundred times “You get what you pay for” and “If you have a $5 head, put a $5 helmet on it“. There’s not much to that claim according to this study. They did some testing, but for legal reasons they don’t give complete results. However, their tests show roughly the same protection from cheap helmets as from expensive ones. This makes sense if the only target is pass/fail, there is no incentive. Without honest information to the contrary, I guess I believe their results.
So, if there is little difference with respect to safety in cheap vs. expensive helmets, it supports the claim that manufacturers are really just trying to meet the standards, not innovate to protect us better. Is that fair to say?
If this is true, then my quest for the Safest Bicycle Helmet is over. They’re all the same . . . Or are they? I think not, and I say that because there are differing technologies. Also, in my heart I believe there are good people trying to do more for safety — even if they hide it behind the legal CYA.
Making The Safest Bicycle Helmet
From the small exposure I have to this part of the bicycle industry, I see one huge opportunity that would significantly increase safety. Any guesses? Hint: It’s not directly technological, and it’s not Engineering.
Remove the barriers so that helmet safety becomes about helmet safety not about legal CYA. If independent testing published a set of representative graphs about each and every helmet, then customers would have real data on which to base decisions. A weighted number of the average max G’s from a battery of tests is sufficient, though graphs are better. Whatever the metric, if customers could choose based on potential safety and protection as well as on style and color, it would drive the market to make better and safer bicycle helmets.
Not all helmet lines would choose to be the safest, some would go for style, or for aerodynamic function, or for light weight and ventilation. Either way, the customer would have that choice, and they would have information to understand it. Just like people buy cars that are not top crash rated, people would buy helmets based on other criteria, not just the safest bicycle helmet . Simple transparency to the market. That one thing would drastically increase bicycle helmet safety for the world.
How Can I Find The Safest Bicycle Helmet?
Let’s continue the quest for the Safest Bicycle Helmet. While somewhat limited as to absolutes, the hidden data does not keep us from learning and finding the better helmets. I don’t know if there is a “safest”, because such a one probably wouldn’t be any fun. Yet, within reason we’ll weed through several technologies, apply good Engineering Design judgement, and find the better ones. The safest bicycle helmet still needs to accommodate the fun it’s there to protect.
We believe safety is a factor in fun. How many times did I have this conversation with my mom? If it’s totally “Safe”, then it’s probably not very fun, and I’ll likely die of boredom or some other couch sitting disease. Live to ____ another day. Fill in the blank . . . climb, ride, race, fly . . . . The “Safest Bicycle Helmet” needs to be the connection between enjoying the fun and living to do it again tomorrow.
Tune in for the Part 2, the next Engineer’s Post, and we’ll focus on the technologies of safety and see what we can derive from the fuzzy available data. It’s another piece of the quest for the safest bicycle helmet. Please join us for that.