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Helmets: Is Cheaper Safer?

timv's picture

From The Recumbent Blog:

There is growing evidence that the new crop of hyper-ventilated helmets that are so popular these days are potentially less safe than traditional smooth-shelled designs. These "racing" helmets may pass the current Consumer Product Safety Commission drop tests, but recent accident reports suggest their squared-off edges and aerodynamic "tail" can grab the road, increasing the possibility of rotational brain damage, neck injuries, and helmet dislodgment.

Links from that post point to several articles on helmets.org, website of the independent and non-profit Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

In "Bike Helmets Should not have Oversized Vents and Square Lines," they write:

A major theme in the helmet market since 1997 has been more and larger air vents. All major manufacturers now have hyper-ventilated models following in the footsteps of Giro's 1997 Helios model (now discontinued). Manufacturers tout the number of vents in their helmets, a meaningless parameter. If all else were equal, more vents would be a Good Thing, but as usual, all else is not equal. Unfortunately opening up new vents usually requires harder, more dense foam and squaring off the edges of the remaining foam ribs to squeeze out the most impact protection possible from the narrower pieces still there. Since we believe that rounder shells and less dense foam are virtues in a crash, we don't recommend hyper-vented helmets unless you can't live without the added ventilation.

And "Dr. Hugh Hurt: Elongated Bicycle Helmets are a Problem:," reports:

During the last couple of years, the technical staff at HPRL has encountered an interesting-and possibly dangerous-problem with the aerodynamic-shaped or streamlined bicycle helmets. These popular helmets have a teardrop design which tapers to a wedge at the rear of the helmet, supposedly reducing aerodynamic drag along with increased ventilation through the many openings in the shell.

The adverse effect of this aerodynamic shape is that the wedge at the back of the helmet tends to deflect and rotate the helmet on the head when impact occurs there. Any impact at the front or sides of the streamlined helmet is no different from other helmet shapes, but any impact on the rear wedge tends to rotate the helmet on the head, probably deflecting the helmet to expose the bare head to impact, and at worst ejecting the helmet completely from the head. Actually, everybody who has tested these streamlined helmets over the past years has encountered the problem of these helmets being displaced during impact testing at the rear wedge. Usually additional tape was required to maintain the helmet in place during rear impact tests; usually the basic retention system alone could not keep the helmet in place during impact testing on the rear of the helmet.

Unfortunately, the implication of helmet displacement and possible ejection in an actual accident impact did not register as a real hazard in previous years of testing, but now there are accident cases appearing that show this to be a genuine hazard for bicycle riders wearing these streamlined helmets. Accident impacts at the rear of these streamlined helmets can cause the helmet to rotate away and expose the head to injury, or eject the helmet completely. The forces generated from the wedge effect can stretch the chinstraps very easily, and even break the [occipital--Prof. Hurt used a trademarked name] retention devices.

Another point in favor of cheap helmets from my own experience: Foam-shell helmets are designed to absorb energy in an impact by crushing and permanently deforming, and aren't designed or intended to be re-used after a crash. I know myself well enough to know that I would have to think twice before I bought a new $50 helmet to replace one that was a little dinged in a crash, and I've heard other skaters say the same. But I've replaced my ugly $10 Bell helmet after a crash a couple of times and never had a moment's pause about doing it.

Oh yeah, one other thing. If you're having this particular problem then here's a page just for you: Is This Helmet on Backwards? How can I tell?" They insist that it's a serious answer to a real problem faced by many people. OK, if you say so.


eebee's picture

Helmet debate

Very interesting info, Tim. Thanks for condensing the pertinent stuff into one article. I probably wouldn't be sufficiently conscientious to go searching for those opinions and test results myself, thinking A) I have a helmet and therefore don't need to bother, and B) I can't afford to buy a 'better' one right now! So...I would rather bury my head in the...er...pavement than to look at the facts.

I think I agree with the theory that the newer, aerodynamic styles might not provide as much protection at the back of the head, than the older or chunkier style helmets. Maybe Giro could trundle out some mannequins on skates, with varnished watermelons for heads inside helmet prototypes, and see what happens when they fall backwards!

Either way, per person, one helmet is better than none.

My 'old' GT helmet held up extremely well during numerous backwards falls. It was so cushy my head practically bounced off the road in slow motion. I think after a few of those the pointy teardrop-shaped part of the helmet chipped down and smoothed it out. I have yet to see what happens in my new Giro helmet. I'll post it here if it happens and I live through it.

timv's picture


I sincerely hope that you don't have occasion to post those crash-test results for your new Giro any time soon!


And I should add that even the cheep-o $10 helmets have a distinctly "aero" shape in the back, but I haven't noticed any tendency of mine to want to rotate on my head the couple of times that I've crashed in one--once hard enough to open a big split in the foam. It's hard for me to even imagine this happening if the helmet fits and the straps are adjusted well.


But yes, one helmet per person is oh so much better than any smaller ratio, and I wasn't meaning to imply that anyone needs go buy a different helmet right now. I was mostly just encouraged to find that these (apparent) experts supported the idea I'd had, that every reputable helmet out there meets the same standard and that spending more might get us a spiffier looking lid or perhaps one that's cooler on a hot day, but it won't be any safer.


profjb2000's picture

Giro Helmet Crash

I crashed with my Giro helmet last summer when a wheel failed. The helmet did not turn on my head, but instead the pavement seemed to grab the back of the helmet where the edges were located. My head and neck were twisted, which strained my neck muscles. The neck was almost as painful as the road rash (my worst ever - 6"x9" on my hip/rear).

The aerodynamic helmet protected my head from the initial impact, but I am convinced that the edges on the back of the Giro helmet are the reason my head and neck were twisted so sharply. It makes sense that any number of things can grab these edges. My skate bag even hooked on these edges sometimes. As a result of the crash and information the helmet safety site, I bought a cheaper Bell replacement that has an aero-shape and the least edges that I could find without resorting to my LAS Mistral ice helmet (smooth w/ no edges or vents).

I still like the aerodynamic vented helmets, but I have not had much success finding one with the insect net and without the edges at the back. I really like the new Spiuk helmets, but spending $140 for a helmet that may be worse than my $40 helmet is hard to swallow.

I guess the real solution is to not crash. 

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