Sales of bicycles and accessories have increased during lockdown, with many new cyclists now on the roads. Some will be wearing head protection, but a leading bicycle helmet maker has stressed that bicycle helmets are not designed to mitigate against impacts from motor vehicles.
“We’ve seen quite a surge in demand,” Eric Richter, senior brand development manager at Giro, told me by e-mail from California.
This surge, he adds, is “gratifying because we’re seeing customers get back onto bikes that have been in storage or underused for years, and that’s such a positive long-term opportunity.”
However, cyclists should not rely on cycle helmets to offer protection against smashes with cars, trucks, or other large, heavy, and often fast road vehicles.
“There are many misconceptions about helmets,” Richter told British trade magazine Cycling Industry News on July 6.
“We do not design helmets specifically to reduce chances or severity of injury when impacts involve a car,” said Richter.
“The number of variables is too great to calculate.”
These variables include the speed of the motor vehicle, its mass, the angle of impact, and the vehicle’s profile.
In 2016, 50% of the people killed while riding their bicycles in the U.S. were not wearing helmets, which leaves the other half, some of whom may have been wearing helmets but who were still killed after being hit by motorists.
It may seem obvious that lightweight bicycle helmets offer little protection against multi-ton motor vehicles traveling fast, yet many helmetless cyclists report that some motorists shout at them for not wearing helmets.
“Current helmet standards do a good job of addressing the kinds of impacts that are common and the energies associated with them,” says Richter.
Last year, research carried out by car manufacturer Volvo and bicycle helmet maker POC found that “current bike helmet testing procedures are fairly rudimentary.”
The Swedish brands said these tests involve “helmets being dropped from different heights on either a flat or an angled surface, and do not take into account [motor] vehicle to bike accidents.”
Bicycle helmets sold in the U.S. have to pass federally mandated tests designed by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and sometimes also the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). The tests check for protection against skull fractures, but cycle helmets are not designed to prevent less immediately catastrophic injuries such as concussions.
“The materials that are used in most of today’s [recreational] helmets are engineered to absorb the high impact energies that can produce skull fractures and severe brain injuries,” says a CPSC statement.
“However,” caveats the organization, “these materials have not been proven to counteract the energies believed to cause concussions.”
The CPSC stresses: “No helmet design has been proven to prevent concussions.”
Outdoor sports attorney Jim Moss, a member of the ASTM helmet committee, agrees: “No cycling helmet is made to prevent concussions. Period.”
While bicycle helmets may offer little protection against impacts from motor vehicles, and cannot offer guaranteed protection against concussions, they can be life-savers when worn in the crash scenarios for which they were designed, such as slamming head-first into a tree branch or falling to the curb during a slow speed tumble.
Not all head strikes are direct impacts, many happen at an angle, and many modern helmets now offer protection against such rotational forces, which could be the cause of at least some concussions.
The leading maker of anti-rotation technology is MIPS, which stands for Multi-Directional Impact Protection System. A helmet equipped with a MIPS insert allows some movement between the outer shell of a helmet and the layer against the head, absorbing some rotational shock and potentially reducing the risk of concussions.
“In the last few years, greater emphasis on addressing rotational forces has had a significant impact on helmet design, technology, engineering, and testing,” said Richter.
“Understanding the effects of rotational motion on the brain, and working to reduce rotational forces by integrating technologies like MIPS into helmets during the last 5-10 years is the most visible example of how head protection is evolving in response to increased knowledge.”
Giro is owned by Vista Outdoor VSTO, Inc., which also owns the helmet brands Bell, Bollé, Cébé, Raskulls, and Krash.
Bell Helmets was founded in 1954 to make helmets for autosports. Evel Knievel stated his Bell helmet helped save his life after his motorcycle crash at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, in 1967.
Giro’s first product was the category-transforming Prolight of 1986, a vented bicycle helmet that was half of the weight of other bicycle helmets of the time.
Vista Outdoor’s HQ is in the surf town of Scotts Valley, near Santa Cruz, and is home to the Dome, a brand-agnostic research facility that started life in the 1950s as a laboratory and workshop for Bell Helmets.
“Head protection is serious business,” says the Dome-promoting website Helmetfacts.com.