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Helmets for electric bikes and other light powered vehicles



Summary: If you use a bicycle helmet for a powered vehicle traveling 20 mph (32 kph) or more, you are taking a greater risk than most bicyclists that the helmet will not be adequate for the type of crash you should expect. For reasons explained below we recommend a light motorcycle helmet instead. For low speed powered scooters, CPSC recommends a bicycle helmet.




The popularity of electric bicycles and those powered by small gas engines has been growing in the US after years of popularity in Europe. California passed a law in 2015 setting up three categories of ebikes and providing regulations for where they can be operated. The categories are not useful for choosing a helmet, since the severity of a crash may differ but for any powered bicycle is likely to be worse than a pedal cycle crash.

What helmet do you need for one of those vehicles? Some light powered vehicles are no faster than a bicycle, leading to speculation that a bicycle helmet could be adequate. We would not recommend that for several reasons:

  • This type of powered vehicle will normally be operating near its maximum speed if on a street or highway. Although some bicyclists can match that speed, most can not, and none can on uphills. The real world average bicycle speed is about half what an ebike can attain, so pedal cyclists would be less likely to be traveling at the maximum when a crash occurs. The critical measure is the closing speed with pavement, but with high forward speed there is a higher probability that the average powered vehicle impact would be more severe.

  • In a head-on crash with another bike, pedestrian or ebike the severity of impact will probably be considerably higher than a pedal cycle crash because it is likely that ebike speed will be higher.

  • In addition to shared-use trails, ebikes are used on streets and roads, and mix with heavier motor vehicles such as cars and trucks. Bicycles do that too, but are usually off to the side if the motorized traffic is fast, and in most situations they have a different way of interacting with other vehicles.

  • Bicycle helmets are tested at about 14 mph, corresponding to the closing speed with the pavement when they fall. There is a vector energy component from forward speed, but it is not significant as long as the helmet slides on the pavement. Ebikes and motorcycles have higher forward speed, and are more likely suffer greater impacts.

  • The user of a powered vehicle is cooled by the passing airstream but not generating as much heat as a pedal cyclist with pedaling effort. Fewer compromises are necessary with heat and weight to produce a comfortable helmet. The rider of a motorbike may freeze in the winter while a cyclist is toasty warm. In the summer the cyclist suffers much more from the heat, and most cannot tolerate a helmet without substantial vents.

  • Standard bicycle helmets do not protect the face (you can live just fine with a broken nose or split lip from a bicycle crash) or the jaw joint, a pathway to transmit injurious force to the brain in a crash at motorized speeds. Although some downhill bicycle racing helmets do have a front chinbar, it is seldom padded adequately for impact protection.

  • Helmets for these vehicles may be used at speeds well above the design speed. Modifying small motors for higher output has been an art form in some communities. It can be sufficient just to remove or bypass a governor mechanism to run the machine at 35 or 40 mph. And for gas models, some of the "49 cc" motors turn out to be considerably larger than that when actually measured, with more power than would be expected.

These factors would normally lead us to recommend a light motorcycle helmet for motorbikes or electric vehicles. Helmets meeting the DOT motorcycle standard, while not optimum, should be adequate.

Powered Scooters

Powered scooters are a different class of vehicle. They are not as fast as ebikes, motorbikes and motorscooters because they are not stable enough to travel that fast! The Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued an advisory recommending the use of bicycle helmets for riding powered scooters, along with knee and elbow pads. In 2006 they issued another recommendation that bicycle helmets are fine for low powered motorized scooters.

Standards

There is no US government standard for light powered vehicles other than the DOT motorcycle helmet standard, required by law for any motorcycle helmet. ASTM has adopted an alternative motorcycle helmet standard -- F3103-14 -- to produce more user-friendly helmets for off-road use designed for the most frequent impacts.

The Snell Foundation, a respected name in helmet standards-setting, published a standard for use with low powered vehicles, mopeds, and motorized bicycles in 1998. Reflecting the higher speeds expected, it has lab test drops somewhat higher than bicycle helmet standards at 2.4 meters on the flat anvil and 1.6 meters on anvils of other shapes. The extent of protection is considerably greater than a bicycle helmet standard. It is referred to as Snell L-98. As of September, 2015, 17 years after it was adopted, there were no helmets certified to it listed on the Snell Web site, but you can check this page on the Snell site to see if that has changed.

In 2016 the Netherlands published an ebike helmet standard. The test line in the front is only 2.5mm lower than the CPSC bicycle helmet standard, but on the sides and rear it is much lower. Flat anvil testing is just above the CPSC standard, and probably about equally stringent given that the Dutch standard uses the European drop rig. Snell's B-95 standard would be tougher. On the curbstone anvil the Dutch are tougher, but they do not test with the hemispheric anvil at all. There are helmets available now from Lazer and at least one other European manufacturer that meet the standard. The US DOT motorcycle standard exceeds the Dutch ebike standard in coverage and impact testing, readily seen in the difference between the helmets designed to each. We have two charts comparing the lab test lines (tested coverage) and impact velocities.

Bottom Line

A bike helmet provides some protection in any crash, but not enough for a powered vehicle consistently traveling at 20 mph and higher. You are taking a greater risk than a bicyclist that the helmet will not be adequate for the type of crash you should expect. For a 28MPH ebike it would probably make sense to consider a light motorcycle helmet. There are lots of them to choose from at your local motorcycle dealer, or you can find them on the Web.



This page was updated or partially revised on: November 21, 2016. BHSI logo
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