Swedish Hövding (Chieftan) Airbag Headgear
Summary: A Swedish company is producing airbag bike headgear? Can it really protect the way a traditional helmet does?
The Hövding web page introduces headgear that is based on the airbag principle, with an inflating plastic protective bonnet designed to deploy when the rider crashes. Here is a video of one test crash.
Airbag helmets have been the subject of conversation for years, often accompanied by satiric photos of riders with balloons on their heads. But this one is a serious attempt to put the mechanism to work.
The device is a project of two Swedish designers who founded the Hövding company, and has been in design and development for five years before it was introduced in October of 2010. The designers wanted to create a product that would not cause "helmet hair" and would appeal to those who would not wear a normal bike helmet.
The airbag is nylon, and inflates with a gas generator when embedded gyros and accelerometers tell it a crash is taking place. The gyros have to be powered during use, so the Chieftan has a rechargeable battery. That seems like a real drawback to us, since the user has to be aware of the battery charge level (there are led indicators) and remember to keep it charged. After a crash the manufacturer wants the headgear back to check its embedded "black box" for recorded movements prior to your crash. They offer "a discount" on the replacement. That implies that this is not a multi-use product.
The video shows a test dummy on a bicycle struck from behind by a car indicated as moving at 20 kph (12 mph). The dummy is thrown backwards over the hood and impacts its head on the flat part of the windshield. The bag deploys prior to the impact.
That is one specific scenario. But how well did the helmet perform? There is no instrumentation trace visible registering how many g's the dummy head saw. And what would happen in a simple fall? Or a collision with a tree branch or utility pole? The mirror of a bus, or the front of a bus or truck? And if the cyclist had not been stationary, but had been traveling at a speed near that of the car? And what if there is another impact after the bag begins to lose air? Nothing in the Hövding web site addresses those questions. Although the device may activate from body motions in some crash scenarios, there are others where the motions occur after the impact, so this device would not cover the full range of impacts that cyclists experience.
The greatest danger in using the device would be impacting something with a bare head if the device did not deploy. We are not going to be easy to convince that it will always be there, given the many ways an impact to a cyclist's head can occur.
Can it pass standards?
Helmet lab testing normally includes testing wet, cold and hot samples. They are tested against rounded anvils and curbstone anvils as well as flat ones. The test would have to be of a fully-inflated Chieftan. How well would this device perform against a grapefruit-shaped anvil, or one that was the shape of a curb? Would it perform after being immersed in water for four hours? Would it pass the positional stability test once it was inflated? Would it perform at -15 and plus 50 degrees Centigrade? (That's 5 to 122 degrees F.) All of these questions assume testing on conventional equipment as called out in the CPSC standard, and there are good reasons based on field experience for each of the test parameters.
We doubt that the Chieftan can pass CPSC, and it would have to for the US market. The CPSC definition of a helmet is:
"Bicycle helmet means any headgear that either is marketed as, or implied through marketing or promotion to be, a device intended to provide protection from head injuries while riding a bicycle. (Section 1203.4.2 (b))
That seems to encompass the Chieftan. Hövding has introduced the device in the European market at a very high price, but is not selling them to US customers. Apparently it is not required to pass the CEN bicycle helmet standard to be sold in Europe. It might simply be certified for the CE mark. European test rigs are very different, and we don't know if it would pass the EN 1078 standard or not. EN 1078 defines a helmet as "an item to be worn on the head and intended to absorb the energy of an impact, thus reducing the risk of injury to the head." That would seem to exclude the Chieftan. Hövding must have some idea of that, but we could not find any reference to standards on their Web site.
Swedish Folksam testing
In 2012 the Swedish insurance company Folksam tested bicycle helmets, including the Hovding. You can read their test article in English. Unfortunately they used unconventional testing methods. They state in the article that all the helmets met the European bike helmet standard, but the Hovding does not. They rated the Hovding highly for one type of test they did, saying it was three times better than the other helmets, but did not even attempt to include it at all in their other tests. And they don't explain what "three times" means. You have to applaud their willingness to take on the challenge of testing the Hovding, but the article really does not provide enough information on the testing to make it useful, and did not even attempt to do a full battery of tests.
The Chieftan raises other questions: what about wearability? Would it be comfortable? Some who have tried it think the weight and shoulder/neck position are less comforatable for them than a conventional bike helmet. Would it be sweaty in hot weather, since there is no ventilation between the wide collar and the chest? There is a statement about not being able to wash the collar that we do not understand. Could it interfere with neck flexibility while riding? While crashing? Could it injure the rider's neck as it deployed? The designers complain about helmets feeling like a "mushroom" on their head, but millions of riders wear helmets comfortably, and this thing around your neck might be worse.
It is not possible to answer questions based on the manufacturer's Web site and video. But this may prove to be a welcome advance in head protection, and there is no need to be too skeptical until we see more.
This photo of the deployed device is on the Hovding Web page.
If the device can detect all crash scenarios, the mechanism could be used to deploy other forms of protection for other body parts. APC Helmets has an airbag system in a motorcycle helmet, but they have fitted the airbag to deploy under the helmet as a neck support in the event of a crash. In that case if the airbag does not deploy you still have the protection of a conventional helmet. Hit Air has a system with an airbag jacket that deploys when a rider is thrown from the motorcycle and a tether is yanked. The problem is that in certain scenarios the airbag will not open, as when the motorcycle and rider crash together into a barrier. For equestrian use it might not deploy if the horse rolls on the rider.
Perhaps the greatest significance of the Hövding announcement is that at least somebody is trying to solve the helmet problem for those who will not destroy their hair styles, and to address the problem encountered by shared bike programs. Shared bike programs all over the world are in need of an easily transportable helmet or one that can be dispensed from vending machines at very low cost for users of shared bicycle programs who did not think to bring a helmet or do not want to carry one. There has been at least one folding helmet available in Europe, but it does not meet US standards and is expensive. If the Hövding works, and if it does not substitute collar destruction for hair-do destruction, it could be an advance.
This page was updated or partially revised on: March 7, 2015.