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If you’re one of those people who thinks that your helmet is fine because it didn’t crack when you came off your bike, then it’s time to rethink what you know about helmet protection.
Even if you can’t see any visible damage to the helmet, if you hit your head then it protected your skull and did its job. But doing its job means it’s damaged and you need to get a new one. According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, the foam part of a helmet is made for one-time use. Even if it still looks intact, it’s no longer as protective as it was. And if the foam is cracked under the thin shell, then it will be more likely to fly apart in your next crash.
In fact, even if you haven’t crashed, if you’ve had your cycling lid for more than five years, then most manufacturers recommend you replace it as the expanded polystyrene (EPS)–which all cycling helmets are made from–can degrade if it’s exposed regularly to sun, rain, or chemicals like suncream, hairspray, and even sweat. And if you have a pre-1980 helmet, then it may not even meet the current standards—and helmet technology has moved on a lot since you bought it.
The last 10 years have seen huge advances in the medical understanding of traumatic brain injuries (TBI), including concussions. Rotation and the effect of shearing forces between the skull and the brain are now known to be one of the factors that play a role in the severity of short- and long-term brain damage. But despite recent updates to standards for both NFL and motorsports, bicycle helmet standards have unfortunately not kept up with the current research.
Advances in technology mean that not all cycling helmets are created equal, and official helmet standards haven’t changed since 1999 in the U.S. and 2012 in Europe. That means you need to do your research and be aware of the differences in companies’ tech—whatever the standards say.
Shortcomings in Helmet Protection Standards
Finding the right helmet for you is about much more than how it looks and feels, you also want to ensure you have the highest level of protection if the worst happens so that your squash doesn’t get, well, squashed.
Unfortunately standards take a very long time to change. The CPSC, which are the standards in the U.S., were last updated in 1999. Randy Swart, executive director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, who is also on one of the working groups trying to agree on testing methods for a new certification standard, said the problem is a lack of funding and lack of clear evidence correlating test methods to real life crash scenarios. Mandatory certification test methods in both the U.S. and Europe currently only require a vertical drop, with no measurement of rotational acceleration.
It has been widely accepted that these existing certification tests do not mirror likely impact scenarios for cyclists out riding.
Furthermore, even if a helmet is certified it doesn’t mean they’re all created equal. The Traffic Injury Prevention Journal published research in 2018 noting “helmets tested produced considerable differences in their protective capabilities. Risk of severe brain injury varied widely between helmets at the standard impact velocity…”
Advances in Helmet Protection Testing and Technology
So while cycling itself, along with medical knowledge, scientific research, and manufacturing technology, have all developed rapidly, standards have not. Peter Halldin is a researcher at the Swedish Institute of Technology (KTH) and cofounder at the company MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System). He and Swart agree that new standards are not expected until around 2024. But don’t despair: Both helmet design and testing in the industry are way ahead of these standards.
A number of independent academic institutions have recognized the disparity and stepped in. The STAR evaluation system used at Virginia Tech’s Helmet Lab has been used to test and rank helmets since 2011. Their aim is to provide a resource so consumers can make informed decisions when buying helmets and to identify which helmets best reduce concussion risk.
Because rotational motion correlates to how much the brain moves inside the skull, their tests evaluate twelve impact conditions, including a rotational impact analysis. All these impacts are tested in six locations on the helmet (including two spots at the rim, which are not currently considered in standards testing) and at two velocities.
Perhaps as a result of these independent rankings, bicycle helmet technology has developed rapidly beyond the official certifications.
In the late 1990s, the duo of Hans Van Holst, a Swedish neurosurgeon and professor emeritus at KTH, and Peter Halldin, combined forces to develop a technology to improve the way helmets absorb rotational forces and protect the head. They founded MIPS to bring this technology to the global helmet industry, launching their first helmet in 2007.
MIPS has now conducted over 30,000 tests over the years, integrating what it has learned into their Brain Protection System (BPS) technology. The MIPS frame is sold to helmet manufacturers worldwide to fit into their helmet models—and which you’ve probably seen it on the road.
According to MIPS, the core of the system is a low-friction layer that allows the head to move 10-15mm relative the helmet in all directions, reducing rotational motion to the brain.
Safe Helmets: MIPS v. WaveCel
MIPS is now used by the majority of the mainstream helmet companies. Nutcase, Bolle, and Specialized have all committed to having the MIPS BPS in all of their helmets going forwards, but there are other technologies also on the market to improve protection against the rotational impact forces. Bontranger WaveCel and POC SPIN are two. WaveCel helmets also consistently perform well in the independent tests.
In the Virginia Tech bike helmet rankings, of the top ten results eight have MIPS and the other two use Bontranger Wavecel technology.
Folksam testing (funded by the Road Safety Trust) also published a set of rankings in June 2020. They gave only eight of the 26 helmets tested a “recommended” grade. Six of those eight were equipped with MIPS, one with WaveCel, and one with an altogether different approach, an airbag technology.
Over 60% of the teams in this year’s Tour de France are also riding with MIPS technology in their helmets. But although MIPS is currently the most popular solution, the chances are this is just the start of rotational technology development. As patents lapse and other manufacturers catch up, many more companies will follow with their own solutions.
This is why independent testing and rankings should not be ignored. The test methods used are similar to those adopted in NFL and motosports, where certfication standards have already changed and caught up. So while mandatory certification for a cycling helmet remain an essential minimum, if you want the best helmet protection possible then you should consider rotational technology too. And as more research is done on this tech it’ll help drive the price down (as higher protections helmets do come with a higher price tag right now)—but the question on your mind shouldn’t be ‘can I afford a higher level of protection?’ but ‘can I afford not to?’