Bicycling Magazine recently published a powerful article considering the history, safety, and future of bike helmets. Called Senseless, writer Bruce Barcott shares his story of how he uncovered the troubling truth about the headgear we have grown to trust without giving it even a second thought.
Fortunately, Barcott gave it a second thought. And it’s worth paying attention to.
“My daughter’s precious brain”
Barcott’s story begins when shopping for a bike helmet for his 14-year-old daughter. He discovers that all bike helmets, despite varying design, fit, and price, essentially do the same job. “We’re all wearing decorative versions of the same Model T,” he says. “The basic setup hasn’t changed much since the first one was sold in 1975.”
He is careful to give the bike helmet credit. Like the seat belt or airbags, bike helmets have been pivotal in saving lives.
“But standing in the shop,” says Barcott, “my thoughts turned to my daughter’s precious brain.”
How well do helmets actually work?
In his search for answers, Barcott first turns to statistics. He uncovers three of particular interest:
- Between 1995 and 2009, American bike commuters increased by 60%, and total bike trips increased by 30%.
- Traffic-related bike fatalities decreased despite the sharp increase of cyclists on the road.
- Fatalities were down, but brain injuries were up. “Between 1997 and 2011 the number of bike-related concussions suffered annually by American riders increased by 67%, from 9,327 to 15,546,” writes Barcott.
Concussion diagnosis has certainly increased in recent years due to a greater knowledge of brain injuries – just not enough to warrant a 67% increase.
Barcott concludes that concussion rates among cyclists have grown faster than the sport.
Why Don’t Today’s Helmets Protect Against Concussions?
There are two types of impact when you hit your head. The first is called “linear acceleration” and happens when the skull hits the pavement. Today’s helmets do an excellent job of preventing major injury, even death, by lessening the impact of a skull hitting the pavement. This explains the decrease in cyclist fatalities in the past few decades.
The second type of impact is called “rotational acceleration.” Following impact, the brain continues to move within the skull. This can tear or stretch axons in the brain leading to symptoms commonly associated with brain injury or concussion.
Today’s helmets are not designed to protect against the rotational acceleration that can cause a concussion. With so many more cyclists on the road, this explains the spike in concussions in the past few decades.
Standards Need to Change
Bike helmet standards were introduced in the 1950s and evolved for the next half-century. By 1999, a U.S. safety standard was set by the government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Despite the growing body of research proving the seriousness of concussions and brain injury, the 14-year-old CPSC standard remains unchanged. Because of this, manufacturers are not required to develop a helmet designed to reduce concussions.
Barcott investigates why the CPSC has not updated their original bike helmet standard. It comes down to cost, he discovers. “What keeps them from revising their outdated 1999 standard is an onerous set of cost-benefit requirements that go far beyond that of any other government agency.”
In other words, manufacturing costs outweigh concussion costs.
Can a Bike Helmet Protect Against Concussion?
Government regulation aside, Barcott next investigates whether or not a concussion-reducing helmet is even possible. He finds a few brave souls who are taking on the challenge.
A team from Sweden has developed a “Multi-directional Impact Protection System” (MIPS) that helps to absorb the rotational movement of the brain upon impact. The helmet doesn’t eliminate concussion risk but certainly reduces it.
Back in the U.S., an Oregon-based group has developed a helmet with a floating liner made of honeycomb-like cells. During impact, the liner shifts and the honeycomb cells buckle to absorb the impact. Called AIM (or, “Angular Impact Mitigation”), the design is a step in the right direction for providing concussion protection.
Most recently, a concussion-reducing helmet was unveiled to motorcyclists. “It’s suspension for your brain,” says the creator. “We’re making a helmet to protect riders long-term.”
An air-bag moment
Bike helmets designed to lessen concussion risk are only just now hitting store shelves. It’s the bike-helmet industry’s “air-bag moment,” says Barcott. Will they become the norm?
Barcott says there may never be improved government standards to protect against concussions in riders. So it’s up to consumers to decide how they want to protect their brains.
For Barcott, he thinks about his daughter’s “amazing, priceless brain,” and swears that her existing CPSC-stamped helmet, while lovely to look at, will be the last one of its kind he ever buys.