Time for a New Helmet?

John Allen

I wouldn’t be without: a helmet. I remember when they swept into use in CRW in the mid to late 1970s, following a couple of crashes which club members survived nicely while ruining their helmets. And for over a decade, CRW policy has required helmets on the club’s rides. I have had to replace three helmets over the course of my bicycling career, but I still get by with the same brain.

Thankfully, standards have been established – actually, over the years, a series of several standards – which define the required performance of a helmet. The current standard is from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Any helmet sold as a bicycle helmet in the USA must meet this standard.

Yet there are still differences in helmet performance. Sometimes fashion and safety are at odds. Specifically, a helmet with an aerodynamic or quasi-aerodynamic tail, emulating an all-out road-racing helmet, poses a greater risk of neck injury than one which is rounded. But on the other hand, air circulation is important in hot weather, and many rounded helmets are skateboard-style helmets without as effective venting as typical bicycle helmets.

If you are in the market for a new helmet, try to find one which is well-vented, has a rounded exterior and is in a bright, conspicuous color. There has been a trend toward more rounded profiles over the past few years (as of 2020). Strap slippage is still an issue, so check for locking strap adjusters. And of course, the helmet must fit.

The helmet market is highly competitive, and saturated, so manufacturers try to come up with new selling points. One is the idea that helmets deteriorate and should be replaced after 5 years or less. This claim has been subjected to testing, and the result was, on average, that a helmet’s effectiveness decreased by 0.7 percent per year. Your 10 year old helmet, if not crashed or otherwise damaged, would be, on average, 7% less effective. The helmet which I wear most often is old enough that its yellow exterior has begun to fade toward white, and has been the object of sales pitches at more than one bike shop! I’ll replace it someday, for sure, but not just yet.

Three developments in helmets in recent years have received a lot of publicity.

One is the Swedish Hövding “airbag” helmet. How nice, a helmet which doesn’t even sit on top of your head. Your hair can blow in the wind. The Hövding sits like a collar around your neck until it deploys in response to what it determines is your falling off the bicycle. But – wait a minute. It won’t deploy to mitigate a direct impact with a car, or a wall, or an overhanging tree branch. And having an explosive device near the carotid artery and the ears might not be such a great idea. Scratch that.

A second development is the so-called “MIPS” helmet, which is designed to rotate slightly on your head in case of an oblique impact. The idea is to reduce rotational stresses on the brain inside the head – a valid concern in and of itself. But – the scalp covers the skull a bit loosely and any helmet will rotate, so the usefulness of this feature is debatable. Testing has shown no improvement, but a manufacturer’s representative disagrees. Most important is for the helmet to have a round, smooth, slick outer surface so it will slide in an oblique impact.

And the third development of note is the so-called “WaveCel” helmet, which uses a plastic mesh to replace part of the expanded polystyrene form impact-absorption material of a helmet. This also allows some rotation, and is the object of disputed claims. One has been that a WaveCel helmet is 48 times safer than an ordinary helmet. How this could be measured or would even be possible, given that the distance over which the liner compresses to soften an impact is not greater, escapes me.

The MIPS and WaveCel helmets meet the standards, but with their newness and promotion, they are expensive. Also, we are beginning to see “smart helmets” with embedded LED lights and other enhancements. Some may pass the test of time. As I said, I am still wearing my faded helmet, I have a good friend who could afford an expensive helmet but bought a $7 helmet at Walmart. It has to meet the same standard!

I could say more, but I don’t have to. The Web site https://helmets.org offers a very thorough and up-to-date look into bicycle helmets. The site includes information on helmet types, design, performance and choices; shapes and sizes for different heads, cleaning, disinfecting and delousing, test reports, you name it. It is recommended reading.

John Allen is CRW SAfety Coordinator.