Hel­met de­sign shakes up an in­dus­try

Brea com­pany’s in­no­va­tion spurs a de­bate over head in­juries.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Charles Flem­ing

Bob We­ber had a small but sim­ple plan. He wanted to de­sign a safer hel­met for dirt bike riders.

The Brea-based en­tre­pre­neur ended up dis­rupt­ing the $250-mil­lion-a-year mo­tor­cy­cle hel­met in­dus­try and ig­nit­ing a de­bate over head in­juries that could have much broader im­pact.

We­ber’s com­pany, 6D, al­ready has an ad­mir­ing im­i­ta­tor in Bell, the lead­ing U.S. hel­met com­pany, which has re­leased a new model in di­rect re­sponse to 6D’s ground-break­ing de­sign.

In what 6D calls the first com­pre­hen­sive re­vi­sion to the mo­tor­cy­cle hel­met in half a cen­tury, the com­pany in­stalled a mov­able in­te­rior liner that ab­sorbs and dis­perses the energy of a crash, much the way an au­to­mo­bile’s “crum­ple zones” do.

Af­ter two decades in the power-sports busi­ness, We­ber — a vet­eran racer, rider and in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tive — had come to be­lieve that mo­tor­cy­cle hel­mets, coun­ter­in­tu­itively, were too strong. De­signed to pro­tect riders from the most cat­a­strophic crashes, the hel­mets were ac­tu­ally too hard to pro­tect them from any-

thing else.

His 6D hel­met in­stead aims to pro­tect riders from far more com­mon con­cus­sions and brain in­juries that can oc­cur in lower-speed ac­ci­dents. It could have im­pli­ca­tions be­yond mo­tor­cy­cling, as new head-pro­tec­tion tech­nol­ogy mi­grates to other sports — par­tic­u­larly football, where a de­bate is rag­ing over how to pro­tect play­ers from con­cus­sions.

Bell ac­knowl­edges that its new Moto-9 Flex hel­met was inspired by the in­no­va­tion at 6D, which re­leased its Ad­vanced Im­pact De­fense hel­met in 2013. Bell’s par­ent com­pany, Fen­way Part­ners, through its sub­sidiaries Riddell and Giro, may soon in­cor­po­rate the same new tech­nol­ogy into football, bi­cy­cle and snow­board­ing hel­mets, ac­cord­ing to Bell.

“Did they drive us to build a bet­ter hel­met? Ab­so­lutely!” said Chris Sack­ett, Bell’s vice pres­i­dent. “I def­i­nitely want to give them credit. It got us think­ing.”

Their think­ing led to a com­pet­i­tive hel­met — at a lower price. The 6D hel­mets start at $745. A Bell Moto-9 Flex costs $649. An equiv­a­lent Arai VX-Pro4 runs about $600. But an en­try-level off-road hel­met from HJC could cost less than $100.

We­ber said 6D wel­comes the com­pe­ti­tion, even from in­dus­try gi­ant Bell.

“They’ve got way more money and big­ger dis­tri­bu­tion ca­pa­bil­ity and more mar­ket­ing funds — and they priced their hel­met $100 less than our hel­met,” We­ber said. “But the hel­met in­dus­try has been asleep at the wheel for years about this is­sue. So I welcome them to the mar­ket.”

The head-pro­tec­tion in­dus­try is big busi­ness. There are cur­rently an es­ti­mated 10 mil­lion to 12 mil­lion mo­tor­cy­cle riders in the U.S. About half of all U.S. states have manda­tory, uni­ver­sal hel­met laws — though most re­quire hel­mets for chil­dren and young adults.

The num­bers go up dra­mat­i­cally when they in­clude hel­mets worn in other sports, such as bi­cy­cling, skiing, snow­board­ing, football and horse-rid­ing.

Health and trans­porta­tion ex­perts agree that hel­met use im­proves rider and pas­sen­ger safety. The Gover­nors High­way Safety Assn. re­ported in mid-May that more than 4,500 U.S. mo­tor­cy­clists died in 2014, and pressed for uni­ver­sal hel­met laws.

“Hel­mets are the sin­gle most ef­fec­tive way to pre­vent se­ri­ous in­jury and death in the event of a mo­tor­cy­cle crash,” the GHSA said.

But ex­perts dis­agree on what makes a safe hel­met, or what kind of pro­tec­tion is best for the av­er­age rider.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the most widely rec­og­nized hel­met-test­ing body dis­missed the 6D hel­met, say­ing it might meet the le­gal def­i­ni­tion for safety, as set by the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, but is not safer for the users.

“These 6D hel­mets are 40% to 100% less pro­tec­tive in a se­vere crash,” said Hong Zhang, ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor for the Snell Foun­da­tion.

Zhang said her or­ga­ni­za­tion bought a 6D hel­met, which was not sub­mit­ted for Snell ap­proval, and tested it. “The 6D hel­met does meet the min­i­mum DOT stan­dard,” she said. “Any other claim, there is no science to prove it.”

But oth­ers in­sist the Snell stan­dards are too high and test only for one kind of ac­ci­dent. Specif­i­cally, the Snell test in­volves strik­ing the hel­met hard, twice, in the same place — a test crit­ics say is left over from the days when hel­mets had to pro­tect against roll-over ac­ci­dents in race cars.

“To pass Snell, you have to hit the hel­met re­ally, re­ally hard,” said David Thom, se­nior con­sul­tant spe­cial­iz­ing in head pro­tec­tion with the in­de­pen­dent re­search firm Col­li­sion and In­jury Dy­nam­ics. “But how many peo­ple ac­tu­ally have that kind of ac­ci­dent? Very, very few.”

Tra­di­tional hel­met de­sign in­volves a two-ply sys­tem. The hard, shiny poly­car­bon­ate or fiber­glass ex­te­rior is de­signed to with­stand blunt force from a di­rect im­pact. The firm, ex­panded poly­styrene or Sty­ro­foam in­ner lin­ing is de­signed to ab­sorb the energy trans­ferred through the hard outer sur­face.

But by try­ing to pro­tect against high-energy im­pact, Thom and oth­ers said, the tra­di­tional hel­met sur­faces are too hard, and have too lit­tle f lex­i­bil­ity, to ab­sorb lower-energy im­pacts.

Both the 6D and Bell Moto-Flex op­er­ate like tra­di­tional mo­tor­cy­cle hel­mets. Both are light­weight — about 3.5 pounds each — with good ven­ti­la­tion and vis­i­bil­ity. They are de­signed to fit snugly and be se­cured to the rider’s head by a tra­di­tional chin strap.

In a slow-speed ac­ci­dent, their man­u­fac­tur­ers ar­gue, the rider’s head will be much bet­ter pro­tected than in a tra­di­tional hel­met.

We­ber said his pri­vately held com­pany is do­ing well: Rev­enue dou­bled from 2013 to 2014, but he de­clined to of­fer fur­ther de­tails on com­pany sales and fi­nances.

6D has al­ready fol­lowed the dirt bike hel­met with a moun­tain bik­ing ver­sion, and will have a street rid­ing hel­met on the mar­ket by early 2016. Bell will in­clude the new hel­met de­sign in its top-shelf street hel­met in 2016 and have it in two more by 2017, the com­pany said, and it will soon be selling bi­cy­cle hel­mets with the same de­sign.

Mean­while, 6D has suit­ors. The com­pany has been ap­proached by mul­ti­ple com­peti­tors in­ter­ested in li­cens­ing the 6D tech­nol­ogy, We­ber said.

“If it’s a sport with a hel­met, I have had con­tact with them,” he said.

Early af­ter its 2013 launch, the com­pany got a mar­ket­ing push when pro mo­tocross rider Zack Bell, wear­ing a 6D hel­met, had a hor­rific crash that went vi­ral on YouTube. Bell landed hard, on his head, but was well enough to race in the next heat.

“This was an ab­so­lutely lethal crash, and he got up from it,” Thom said.

In late May, top pro rider Eli To­mac has a sim­i­larly bad full-frontal crash. His in­juries re­quired surgery and elim­i­nated him from the rest of the race sea­son — but he suf­fered no con­cus­sion.

Thom and oth­ers stressed that although the new 6D and Bell Moto-9 Flex hel­mets can prob­a­bly re­duce hel­met in­juries to cer­tain riders un­der cer­tain con­di­tions, no hel­met man­u­fac­turer has fig­ured out how to pro­tect all riders in all kinds of ac­ci­dents.

“It’s the age-old ques­tion,” said Chris With­nall, se­nior engi­neer at Bioki­net­ics, a firm that tests prod­uct safety. “Can you tell me how you’re go­ing to crash your bike? If so, I’ll tell you ex­actly what kind of hel­met to buy.”

Gina Ferazzi Los An­ge­les Times

6D’S hel­met aims to pro­tect riders from more com­mon in­juries that can oc­cur in lower-speed ac­ci­dents.

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