Like the seatbelt, wearing a helmet has become a natural part of our bike ride – at least for most of us. It’s the cheapest and most dependable piece of gear we own and protects one of the few parts of our body that we can’t replace or do without – our head. There is some disagreement over the effectiveness of the helmet in some crashes, but there is no debate that wearing a helmet gives you better chances in a fall or crash than not having one.
“The most serious injuries among a majority of those killed are to the head, highlighting the importance of wearing a bicycle helmet. Eighty-nine percent of bicycle deaths are persons 16 and older, so helmet laws should include adults. Helmet use has been estimated to reduce head injury risk by 85 percent.” Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.
It’s true that many of we older folk rarely wore a helmet when riding a bicycle in our youth. Much of that behavior was due to lack of knowledge. Lack of knowledge about the true impact of head injuries and the ease to which they could be minimized. The lack of focus on wearing helmets could also be directly attributed to the almost complete absence of these in retail stores at the time.
History. “The most efficient shape for a helmet in a crash resembles a bowling ball. Round, smooth surfaces slide well and "scrub off" energy from a crash, while avoiding any tendency for the helmet to snag and jerk the rider's neck. This has been demonstrated in lab tests.” Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. This is true enough, but who wants to wear a bowling ball? Tough sell. It may seem surprising that most bicycle helmets are still made of the EPS developed in the 1950's.
Technology. Helmets for those on the bicycle didn’t appear until the 1930s, when Bill Honeman led the charge to get effective head protection for himself and his professional bike racing colleagues. As you can see from the above chart, technologies for helmets have been slow to change. Most today utilize EPS as the foam fill to compress when you have and accident. "Expanded PolyStyrene is one of the most widespread foams used in our society. It is the white picnic cooler foam that you see eggs and stereo gear packed in. It is the peanuts in your mail order package. It is the white food carton or drink cup you get at a carry-out. It is cheap to manufacture, light, and has almost ideal crush characteristics with no bounce-back to make the impact more severe. It can be reliably manufactured with reasonable quality control procedures." BHSI
In very recent times, a few companies have invested in innovative approaches to improve the effectiveness of cycling helmets. For more detailed information on history, technologies and innovation follow the links at the end of this document.
Layered Compression. Although helmet style has changed, over the last 10-12 years, there have been no significant advances in the material of the helmet that is to absorb the impact during a crash. Recently, one company (Kali) has released versions of a helmet that utilizes layers of carbon cloth, which compress during impact and absorb the shock much more effectively than other technologies.
Airbags. There are a number of companies that are adapting technology that has been developed to protect snow skiers. This is in effect, an airbag for you on the bike. In the case of the helmet, this would allow the person on the bicycle to wear a very non-intrusive piece of gear either around their neck or over their head like a scarf. When, as in your automobile, the motion suggests and impact is about to happen, the device would deploy the airbag, protecting the head and neck. These are only now becoming available and acceptance may happen over time.
Sensors. As we’ve seen recently, particularly with American football, sensors placed in helmets which store data from falls or collisions, can provide valuable and immediate information to medical personnel trying to evaluate an accident victim. Also appearing on the market are helmets with heart rate sensors and other data collection capabilities which can interact with your smartphone. One sensor can detect force (crash or collision) and instruct your smartphone to call for help.
Education is everything.