Hel­met, sure, but who would wear a mush­room?

Bi­cy­cle safety ex­perts urge new safety de­signs to in­clude shock-ab­sorbant ma­te­ri­als


Whether hel­met use should be manda­tory for bi­cy­cle riders is a heated topic.

You’re un­doubt­edly bet­ter off wear­ing a hel­met if an ac­ci­dent oc­curs, and the im­por­tance of wear­ing a hel­met in­creases with the sig­nif­i­cance of the ac­ci­dent.

But while hel­mets have come a long way since the strappy leather head cover­ings some cy­clists wore be­fore the 1970s, they still don’t do much to pro­tect us from con­cus­sions.

Hel­met ex­perts are call­ing for rad­i­cally new de­signs to im­prove safety.

Stud­ies have found that in an ac­ci­dent, you’re much less likely to suf­fer a se­vere brain in­jury if you’re wear­ing a hel­met than if you’re not, but your odds of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing mi­nor brain trauma are sim­i­lar. That’s be­cause mod­ern hel­mets are lined with hard foam.

The de­sign can with­stand a se­ri­ous im­pact, pro­tect­ing your skull from frac­tur­ing against a hard sur­face such as pave­ment, but the rigid foam doesn’t ab­sorb as much en­ergy as a softer liner, such as those found in foot­ball hel­mets.

The best pro­tec­tion for a bi­cy­clist would be a hel­met made from a softer ma­te­rial thick enough to ab­sorb any im­pact, but “no­body wants to bike around with a mush­room on their head,” said Mehmet Kurt, who stud­ies head in­jury pre­ven­tion at the Stevens In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in Hobo­ken, N.J.

The No. 1 rea­son peo­ple don’t want to wear a hel­met re­lates to self-im­age — how cool it looks or whether it will cause hel­met hair, he added.

Con­sumer pref­er­ence has of­ten driven hel­met de­sign, and not al­ways in the di­rec­tion of safety.

Randy Swart, di­rec­tor of the Bi­cy­cle Hel­met Safety In­sti­tute, a non-profit based in Ar­ling­ton, Va., said the tran­si­tion from round hel­mets to el­lip­ti­cal or oval-shaped ones in the 1990s was “cer­tainly not an im­prove­ment” safety-wise. But peo­ple wanted to look like Lance Arm­strong.

A round hel­met with a smooth sur­face is prefer­able, Swart said, be­cause if a hel­met snags dur­ing an ac­ci­dent, a rider’s head will be whipped around, pos­si­bly caus­ing a con­cus­sion.

Ac­cord­ing to Roy Burek, a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Con­cus­sion and Trau­matic Brain In­jury Pre­ven­tion Group at Cardiff Univer­sity in Wales, cy­clists can face four ba­sic types of brain in­jury: skull frac­tures, in­te­rior brain bruis­ing and swelling, brain bleed­ing and twist­ing or dis­tor­tion of the brain.

Skull frac­tures and brain bruis­ing re­sult from di­rect im­pact and lin­ear en­ergy — the sort you would ex­pe­ri­ence if you fell and hit your head on a curb. Bike hel­mets pro­tect from th­ese in­juries quite well.

When a rider goes fly­ing and skids to a stop, the brain ex­pe­ri­ences the ef­fects of ro­ta­tional en­ergy, which can pro­duce in­ter­nal bleed­ing and con­tor­tion. “The brain is a lit­tle bit like an or­ange in a glass of wa­ter,” Burek said.

“If you twist the glass quickly, the or­ange won’t fol­low im­me­di­ately be­hind.”

Hel­met de­sign could go in many di­rec­tions. Swart en­vi­sions a smooth, round hel­met with a softer ma­te­rial that sur­vives more-dra­matic im­pacts but wouldn’t need to be im­prac­ti­cally thick.

Burek noted that most bi­cy­cle ac­ci­dents oc­cur at low speeds, so an ideal ma­te­rial for a hel­met would be soft when you land at low speeds, to al­low the brain to move and thus de­crease da­m­age from ro­ta­tional en­ergy. But that ma­te­rial would also be “smart” — firm­ing up when a high-speed crash oc­curred, thus pre­vent­ing a skull frac­ture.

Kurt thinks the most promis­ing smart in­gre­di­ent is, ac­tu­ally, air.

Kurt worked with sci­en­tists at Stan­ford Univer­sity this year to test in­flat­able hel­mets. Some­thing sim­i­lar — col­lars that in­flate like airbags when they sense a crash oc­cur­ring — are avail­able from Swedish com­pany Hovd­ing, but they don’t meet U.S. safety stan­dards.

And for good rea­son, ar­gues Swart: While Kurt’s re­search showed that th­ese de­vices can with­stand the same im­pact as hel­mets, they had to be over­in­flated to do so; they did not au­to­mat­i­cally in­flate enough to pro­tect against se­ri­ous im­pacts.

Kurt wor­ries that stan­dards aimed par­tic­u­larly at pre­vent­ing skull frac­tures may im­pede in­no­va­tion of hel­mets that might be bet­ter at pre­vent­ing con­cus­sions.

For ex­am­ple, hel­mets are re­quired by the U.S. Con­sumer Prod­uct Safety Com­mis­sion to with­stand wa­ter (think rain) and ex­treme heat, which he said rules out any­thing with sen­sors that might be needed for a softer hel­met.

Burek hopes for tech­nolo­gies that more closely mimic the scalp. If you press your fin­ger­tips against your head and move them around, you can feel that your scalp wig­gles around rel­a­tive to your skull. This wig­gle room is im­por­tant: It helps pro­tect our brains from ro­ta­tional en­ergy in mi­nor im­pacts by al­low­ing our heads to move a bit in those cases.

Hel­mets are not de­signed to move when you crash, be­cause you re­ally don’t want them fall­ing off.

“We need to come up with ma­te­ri­als that don’t col­lapse head on, but twist and move in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions like a sec­ond scalp,” Burek said. It’s a bit like land­ing on a wa­ter bed in­stead of a firm mat­tress.

In­creased aware­ness about the long-term con­se­quences of brain in­juries for pro­fes­sional foot­ball players has led to an uptick in trau­matic brain in­jury re­search and the de­vel­op­ment of new ma­te­ri­als, Kurt said in an email.

Bi­cy­cle hel­mets pose a unique chal­lenge, though, be­cause the im­pact speeds of an ac­ci­dent, es­pe­cially if a car is in­volved, can be much greater than that of col­lid­ing ath­letes.

But re­search on foot­ball hel­mets does help us bet­ter un­der­stand con­cus­sions, and given the at­ten­tion be­ing paid to pre­vent­ing such in­juries, Kurt said he is “fairly op­ti­mistic” we could see a bet­ter bi­cy­cle hel­met in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture.


Swedish com­pany Hovd­ing makes an airbag-style bi­cy­cle hel­met.

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