The Helmet Update
Vol. 11, No 1 - June, 1993
It has been almost a year since our last issue. Sorry, folks, but we have been busy
earning a living. We hope to Update you more frequently for the rest of this year.
Mandatory Helmet Laws Pick Up Speed
Since our last issue the passage of new mandatory helmet laws has accelerated.
There is still no federal law requiring helmets, although bills are pending to
authorize grants for helmet promotion and to require a federal helmet
performance standard. States and localities have begun adopting laws, however.
At least three places require helmets for all riders regardless of age: Rockland
County, NY; Bidwell Park (a large regional facility in Chico, California) and King
County, Washington (excluding the City of Seattle). New Jersey requires helmets
for anyone under 16. Three Maryland counties, the state of Georgia and
Beechwood, Ohio have similar laws. Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and
California require helmets for toddlers in the one to five year range if carried on a
bicycle. Virginia has authorized some localities to pass local laws covering those
under 15. Many helmet law bills are under study in other state legislatures and
cities, so this list is probably not up to date. We can supply copies of some of these
laws and an LAW position paper discussing how various provisions affect cyclists'
In addition to laws, many bicycle clubs require helmets on their organized rides.
The United States Cycling Federation and the Triathlon Federation require
helmets for all riders in the events they sanction.
Safe Kids prepares a detailed status sheet on bicycle helmet laws and updates it
quarterly on a subscription basis. Contact Joan Demes, Safe Kids, 111 Michigan
Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20010-4993. Phone (202)939-4993, Fax 939-4838.
Bicycle helmets have been mandatory for some time in all states in Australia.
Compliance is high but varies according to the area, with some urban areas over
90% and some rural areas considerably lower. Early indications are that there
were fewer riders on the road, which some have blamed on helmet laws. Teen
riders in Melbourne dropped 15%, but adult riding recovered after a short dip.
Helmet law supporters believe that seasonal data problems, a lowering of the teen
driving age and other factors are be involved, so the effect of the laws cannot be
isolated. Head injuries are significantly down, by 50% in New South Wales and
70% in Victoria based on hospital admissions. This is still not as much as had
been predicted. Exemptions were originally permitted for Sikhs, huge heads and
others who cannot wear helmets, but in practice were rarely granted and have
now been mostly withdrawn unless a doctor's certificate is provided. Penalties are
necessary to make the laws work. One advocate said "Helmets are no longer an
issue in Australia."
We do not know of any other countries with mandatory helmet laws for bicyclists.
ASTM Nears Final Approval of a Bicycle Helmet Standard
The F08.53 Committee of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)
has been working on a bicycle helmet standard for some time. The committee has
just issued the base standard for a series of new helmet standards, and will soon
issue the specific requirements for bicycle helmets, child bicycle helmets, and
perhaps skateboard helmets.
The ASTM standard is considerably more difficult to meet than the outdated
(1984) ANSI standard, and its impact tests and other provisions are comparable to
the Snell standard. The ASTM drop heights are 2.0 meters on the flat anvil and
1.2 meters on two hazard anvils, one round and one simulating a curb. Maximum
permissible g force registered in the headform inside the helmet is 300 g. Strap
strength is tested by yanking it with a 4kg weight dropped for .6 meters. There is
no stability (rolloff) test yet, but one is under development. At present ASTM lacks
a requirement for independent lab testing for certification, but an organization
called the Safety Equipment Institute is gearing up to provide that. Coverage does
not have to extend as far down on the head as required by the Snell standard, but
otherwise an helmet which passes the ASTM tests should pass the Snell tests as
This is the next big development in bicycle helmet standards, and will soon be
advertised by manufacturers who are eager to avoid the cost of the Snell
certification process. For consumer acceptance, the independent certification is the
key question, since a manufacturer's assurance of self-compliance inevitably
depends on the quality of the manufacturer. Snell not only provides an
independent certification process, but undertakes extensive follow-up testing of
helmets purchased in the field, assuring that production line changes or materials
variations do not degrade the helmet's protection.
As a member of ASTM, BHSI has been participating in the activities of the
committee and attending its meetings twice a year. The next committee meeting
will be in Dallas in December, and new members are welcome. ASTM can be
contacted on this subject by writing to Bill Brown, Staff Member, ASTM, 1916
Race Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103-1187, telephone (215) 299-5499. [note: address
has changed since 1993. See our ASTM page for a current address and staff contact.]
1993 Helmets: A Mixed Bag
The helmet market has exploded since last year. Helmet sales are commonly
projected at 8 million in the U.S. market this year, but could be higher. There are
now dozens of new helmet manufacturers in the market, with new ones entering
and old ones shaking out every month. Helmets are now sold in discount stores
and with coupons on cereal boxes and the back of the package of Little Debbie
Figaroos. Prices are softening at the low end, but manufacturers are innovating
and advertising to keep the high end up there. Organizations like Ride Safe are
putting together complete helmet campaigns for school organizations, supported by
modest profits on the helmets sold. Safe Kids is active again in helmet promotion,
and now has Rhode Gear (Bell) producing a Safe Kids helmet.
All this activity is great to see. On the other hand, some of this year's models still
raise new concerns about the direction of the industry. Some highlights:
Everybody Meets Snell. Nearly every helmet on the market now meets the Snell
standard. Snell can send you their latest list, or we can send it to you, but you
probably will not need it. The list has 838 separate entries, although many of
them are the same helmet produced for different retailers. Call Snell at (516)
862-6440 or us if you need to check a helmet. There are some new helmets on the
market without Snell certification, even from major manufacturers. They tend to
be racers' aero models, where protection has apparently been compromised to
accommodate some outlandish weight or shape restriction. The best advice for
consumers is still "look for the Snell sticker."
GESET Foam. About three years ago, General Electric began producing a new
EPS combined with resins that molds into a stronger foam. The technical
description is "a blend of polyphenylene oxide and polystyrene impregnated with
pentane (an organic blowing agent)." Beginning last year, GESET has been rapidly
spreading through the high end of the bicycle helmet industry despite the fact that
GE says it was not developed for helmets. It permits lighter helmets with slightly
thinner foam to pass the Snell standard, opening up a new competition to convince
the consumer that the difference between eight and nine ounces is significant. It
also performs better in wet sample testing, which can produce erratic test results
with other foams. Most importantly, it holds together better in multiple impacts,
which is a problem with any all-foam helmet.
Aero designs. Very few riders ever take advantage of the "tail" on an aerodynamic
helmet, which helps only at high speed. For most riders Aero styles are styles, not
a functional classification. But there are more of them than ever this year, and the
riders we see using them are not Olympic athletes. Common sense tells you that
the ideal shape for the exterior of the helmet to perform well in a crash is a round
ball, which is less likely to snag on anything and jerk the rider's neck, or to
constrain the head in the crash. We think that the U.S. is still in the phase where
anything that persuades more riders to buy helmets has merit even if it degrades
protection slightly, and there is no scientific evidence yet that aero helmets are
less protective than round ones. But the time will come to re-examine that
philosophy. Similar issues are raised by the "sculpted" look in some other helmet
models. Designers are looking for alternatives to plain looking helmets, even if it
means sacrificing some crash performance.
Hard Foam Liner Inserts. Two more manufacturers have introduced models this
year with very hard foam around the vents. The hard foam lets them open up the
vents more while still passing a standard. In the U.S. our standards do not have a
test for point loading on the skull, so the metal or hard plastic headform bridges
the vent hole, permitting the helmet to pass. Real skulls are less rigid, and may
deflect from harder foam, causing a "wave" in the fluid in which the brain is
suspended or even bashing the brain directly. In addition, many researchers
believe that we already need to soften the foam in bicycle helmets to reduce g
levels well below the current 300 g standard, since some riders may be injured at
lower g's. Australia has added a point loading test to its standard to eliminate any
spots where the load is disproportionate, and we need to do that here as well.
Meantime, we are advising consumers to avoid any helmet with hard foam inside
unless it has a sticker stating that it passes the Standards Association of
Off Brands. Taiwan is now sending us any number of new helmets, most of them
indistinguishable from each other. There are many new U.S. brands as well. But
some are not Snell certified, so there is no check on their quality control
procedures. EPS foam is notoriously subject to molding problems, which can leave
internal voids and other nasty defects. Under these conditions Snell certification
becomes even more important.
Spaghetti Straps. The search for product differentiation has led some
manufacturers to put very narrow straps on their helmets. The effect is akin to
wearing high heeled shoes: function and comfort are sacrificed for style.
Colors and trim. There was a net loss in conspicuity this year, since the neon
craze is over and deep purple is in. Helmet trim is often not reflective, sometimes
even when the box says it is. Again a change in standards could be required to
achieve improvement. At present the New Zealand standard is still the only one in
the world which addresses conspicuity.
Visors. Visors are making a comeback. There are new ones this year from several
manufacturers. The ASTM standard requires helmets to pass with any included
attachment in place, so at least visors will now be tested. (Snell and ANSI do not
test the visor at all.) But there is no provision for how easily a visor should rip off
rather than snagging the head in a crash, nor for whether or not it can shatter
and cut the rider's face. So we recommend avoiding a visor. The issue had died
while visors were unfashionable, but now they are back and must be addressed.
Air bags. Bell has introduced a fitting system pumped up by air to fit, which they
licensed from Reebok. The system offers advantages: it can be adjusted easily for
winter use with a cap, may fit strangely shaped heads better and might make
fitting quicker. But will it hold up? If it leaks after long use, riders are likely to
wear the helmet anyway, just tolerating a loose fit. That becomes a safety
question. We also heard a Bell salesman at one bicycle show tell a show owner "If
you're out riding on a hot day and you get too hot you can just let out some air to
increase your ventilation." Just don't crash on hot days.
Multi-Density Foam. LT continues to produce impressive looking designs with
harder foam outside and softer layers inside. Their new 870 has mesh in between
to keep the foam together in a crash and a thin shell. (On the other hand, their
new 970 has a "sculpted" shape which provides irregular and unnecessary ridges
on the outside shell.) It would be interesting to see independent lab test results on
these and other helmets.
Snell Funds Research Projects
The Snell Memorial Foundation has funded a number of primary research projects
on head and neck injury at various universities and research centers around the
country. The results will be published eventually, but research takes time. In
addition Snell has funded two literature reviews and monographs by a team
headed by Dr. Susan Baker at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Baker has produced
two very fine analyses of the current information on head injury. The first was
titled "Head Injuries in Non-Motorized Informal Recreation" and excluded bicycle
injuries. The second is titled "Injuries to Bicyclists: A National Perspective," and
we are attaching one useful summary page from it. It includes charts, tables and
graphs from various sources covering bicycle trips, fatalities, hospital admissions,
emergency room cases and more. The conclusions are not surprising, but it brings
together a complete statistical review of data from many sources to make sure
your bases are covered. Snell distributes both papers free: Snell Memorial
Foundation, P. O. Box 493, St. James, NY 11780. Telephone (516) 862-6440 or Fax
(516) 862-6545. They are also distributed by the Center for Disease Control, 1600
Clifton Road F-41, Atlanta, GA 30333.
Snell Reduces Severity of Strap Test
The Snell Memorial Foundation announced in January that it was reducing the
severity of the strap test for its bicycle helmet standard. The previous requirement
was that the buckle and strap withstand the jerk from a 38 kg weight dropped for
70 mm. (about 2.75 inches). This was a very severe test. The drop has now been
reduced to 30 mm (about 1.3 inches), and is now comparable to most other
standards. In practice, helmets meeting almost any minimal standard do not
suffer strap breakage, so the softening of the requirement will probably have little
effect. We think that consumers should primarily be concerned about strap fit and
buckle durability in use, both of which affect helmet performance, and neither of
which is covered in the current Snell, ASTM or ANSI standards.
World Health Organization Conference
Last year the World Health Organization (WHO) began a helmet initiative,
sparked by Dr. Philip Graitcer of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. (We
are enclosing a copy of the latest newsletter, which explains their activities better
than we can. If you are interested in their activities, contact Dr. Graitcer for
This international helmet campaign got a boost last month when WHO sponsored
a major conference on injuries and injury control in Atlanta. Earlier the same
week ASTM had a head and neck injury conference at the same location. Many
interesting papers were presented at the two conferences. Among the researchers'
- Restraining movement of the head during impact increases neck injuries. If the
head is free to twist, slide or roll the strain on the neck is reduced. The researcher
concluded that helmets should have hard, non-deformable, slippery outer surfaces,
introducing the term "The Slippery Head Protection Philosophy." This confirms
Dr. Voigt Hodgson's work on sliding resistance, and indicates that hard shell
helmets can probably be superior to soft or thin shells. There are many other
variables in helmet design besides the shell, and current hard shell designs may
not necessarily be superior to thin shells. We still have no field data comparing
the various designs and no indication that it is necessary to recommend hard
shells for everyone. Other research on spinal injuries from direct straight-neck
impacts on the crown of the head seemed to support this thesis.
- California's motorcyclists are now using helmets at the rate of 99.5% since the
mandatory helmet rule was reinstated for motorcycle riders. But 7% are wearing
bogus helmets, some about the size of a yarmulke. Motorcycle ridership is down by
16%, and fatalities are down by 37%. Fatalities per 1,000 riders (which adjusts for
less ridership) dropped by 32%.
- Cost effectiveness measurements show bicycle helmet promotions to be reasonably
cost effective, ranking behind motorcycle helmet promotion and ahead of rear seat
belt promotion. Either the legislative approach or a community-based promotion
campaign approach can produce good results. Depending on the approach,
maximum impact comes from lowering helmet costs or increasing the wearing
- Toronto's experience shows that the usage rate increases if the rider is riding with
helmeted peers, or with an entire helmeted family. Their subsidy program did not
work well for low-income areas, but did work well in medium or higher income
- A Danish study emphasized approaching helmet promotion by analyzing children's
bicycle culture. Danish children used their bikes for transportation, were
impulsive on where to go next, valued their independence to ride wherever they
chose, regularly exceeded the limits of good judgment to race or hot-dog, sped,
considered bicycles important in achieving status. There were gender differences
in the bicycle/communication relationship, with girls chatting more as they rode.
Helmets must be "cool" even though children recognize the protection advantages,
and peer pressure is a key element. Children function in groups. Their bicycle
culture is unique to children, and is not an extension of adult bicycle culture. The
approach can provide interesting insights on how to reach children with a helmet
message by relating it to their bicycle culture. Case studies of individuals have
little effect, so try to reach the kids with a group message, make sure that helmets
are presented as "cool" and remember that helmets are not an isolated appliance,
but a part of a culture. Most programs already follow those guidelines, but the
talk bought back childhood memories that we all need to keep in mind when we
try to reach child audiences.
- The Puerto Rico chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics has developed
Spanish language materials for helmet promotion. AAP can be reached at (708)
- Georgia state officials on TV during the conference proudly announced
(erroneously) that their new helmet law taking effect on June 1 would be first of
its kind in the nation. A national organization spokesperson said (equally
erroneously) during a keynote address that the first was in Montgomery County.
Imagine researching a history of helmet laws years from now...
For child cyclists up to age 9, the most frequent crash with a car is the "mid-block
ride-out," which accounts for a full 42%.
- Maryland has had legislation advocated by a community-based effort (Howard
County), a coalition of groups (Montgomery County) and a single legislative
champion (Allegheny County). Their statewide effort failed, partly because an
earlier brouhaha over motorcycle helmet laws created helmet law fatigue. Major
components to be determined include age group covered, handling of contributory
negligence provisions, provisions government bicycle rentals and fines to be
assessed. Howard County has written only five citations, the fines for all of which
- No workshop participants reported any of the "hanging" incidents which have
occurred in several Scandinavian playgrounds. Either the spacing on our gym
equipment bars is different, or children are just not wearing their helmets in
playgrounds outside of Sweden and Norway.
We hope that these scraps from our notes will be fleshed out with published
papers in due time for the ASTM conference. For the WHO conference there was
a book of conference abstracts, but no published proceedings.
More Bibliography, More Needed
We are sending you with this issue new additions to our annotated bibliography.
The full bibliography in its new format runs about 75 pages, and we have to
charge $6 for photocopying and postage. You can get the bibliography on a
PC-compatible disk (any format) as a plain ASCII text file or WordPerfect file for
$2. Please remember us when you see anything interesting in print about helmets!
Psssst!! You Can Still Find Hard Shells
Hard shell helmets have all but disappeared from bike shops. But one very good
design is still available from Ames department stores, and perhaps other discount
retailers as well. Ames has a "BSI" (originally derived from Bell Sports Inc.)
helmet made by "BSI" in Rantoul Illinois (the small town where Bell makes its
bicycle helmets). It is a dead ringer for the old Bell V-1 Pro, except that the buckle
is now the familiar two-pronged Fastex design rather than the various Bell
designs we never liked. It has a Snell sticker inside. It sells regularly for $29.95,
and was on sale for $24.99 in our area over the Memorial Day weekend. Now if
they will just "downgrade" it further and use d-rings instead of that Fastex
Hal Fenner's Melon Drop
Looking for a dramatic demo for your next group talk to kids? So was Dr. Hal
Fenner of the Snell Foundation. He has tested various melons for dropping to the
floor, one in a helmet and the other bare. Hal has concluded that the best melon is
a not-too-ripe honeydew. Pumpkins can be better, but finding head-sized ones is
difficult. Take your helmets to the grocery to find the right size honeydew.
Shaking the melon tells you which is ripe--you can hear the seeds rattle in a ripe
honeydew, so avoid the noisy ones. Draw smiley faces, or one smiley and one
pffffft face on the melons. Hold the helmeted and unhelmeted melons out to your
sides, one in each hand, and tip your hands toward the audience to drop them in
unison. The unhelmeted honeydew will smash. Whee. The helmet on the other
melon will last for three drops, then split on the fourth one, still preventing the
melon from smashing. Hal reports that the kids are impressed, and you have their
attention right away.
We're still alive and well, although this issue was long delayed. We still distribute
the Update free, and probably will continue to do that until we can guarantee a
regular publication schedule again. Our budget this year is $4,000, all of it
contributed by helmet consumers, and if you are not connected with helmet
manufacturing or sales you have an opportunity to add to that to support this
newsletter, our standards committee work and our documentation clearinghouse.
Perhaps more importantly, if you see new papers, studies, new laws or other
materials on helmets you think should be seen by a wider audience, send them to
us so we can distribute them.
This page was reformatted on: May 2, 2015.