Bike Helmets Need More Rigorous Safety Testing, a New Study Suggests

·3 min read
Photo credit: Jason Frank
Photo credit: Jason Frank
  • Bike helmets are designed to protect you against a traumatic brain injury (TBI), yet testing them in a way that mimics real-world falls and collisions has been lacking, a new study suggests.

  • Current manufacturer methods tend to test helmets with falls from right angles, which is how you’d land if the bike was stationary.

  • The research describes a new method of helmet testing where crash test dummies hit the ground at an angle as they were moving—basically, the way you’d actually fall off a bike.

  • However, previous research indicates helmets still significantly reduce the risk of skull fractures and other TBIs, so it’s important to wear one while riding.

Bike helmets are designed to protect you against a traumatic brain injury (TBI), yet testing them in a way that mimics real-world falls and collisions has been lacking, a new study suggests.

Published in Annals of Biomedical Engineering, the research describes a new method of testing that includes assessment of helmet integrity when subjected to what’s called oblique impact—hitting the ground at an angle as you’re moving. Basically, the way you’d actually fall off a bicycle.

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Current manufacturer methods tend to test helmets with falls from right angles, the researchers noted, which is how you’d land if the bike was stationary. While you can certainly fall that way, the majority of accidents tend to involve rotational force and motion, lead researcher Fady Abayazid, Ph.D.(c), in the Human Experience, Analysis, and Design (HEAD) lab at Imperial College London, told Bicycling.

Researchers compared 27 helmets, both older styles without much cushioning and newer models that have tech, such as friction-reducing layers, shearing pads, and impact-triggered airbags.

Crash test dummies were fitted with accelerometers and dropped headfirst, side-first, and back-first onto a 45-degree surface covered in sandpaper, to simulate asphalt. They also launched the dummies into the fall at 14 miles per hour, which is a common cycling speed. Impact points were selected based on reports of just over 1,000 previous bicycle accidents.

Researchers found that newer technologies reduced strain across the whole brain compared to older helmets. However, they also concluded that some newer helmets designed to reduce rotational forces didn’t live up to their claims.

“This shows us that designers and policy makers in the helmet industry should take head rotation that occurs in oblique impacts more seriously, both in design and testing standards,” said Abayazid. “While some technologies are promising, it’s important to educate ourselves as bicyclists on how good these technologies really are, as well as their shortcomings.”

Although the study didn’t cover what might happen if you don’t wear a helmet at all, study co-author Mazdak Ghajari, Ph.D., senior lecturer in the HEAD lab at Imperial College London, told Bicycling that previous research indicates helmets significantly reduce the risk of skull fractures.

These TBIs can have fatal consequences, he said, but even when they don’t, there can be considerable damage to the white matter in your brain as well as blood vessels.

“These TBIs may not necessarily be immediately life-threatening, but can potentially have life-changing effects,” said Ghajari. These injuries can occur not just with bicycling, but any sport or activity that includes potential falls, particularly at higher speeds and with rotational forces—for example, rock climbing, horseback riding, or skateboarding.

The takeaway? Urge manufacturers to do more effective testing, said Abayazid. And in the meantime, always wear a helmet.

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