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Summary: Consumers Union issued this letter in response to criticism of its findings in 1997 helmet buckle tests. CU's lab broke buckles that others had found to meet normal standards.

June 13, 1997

An Open Letter to Bicycle-Helmet Manufacturers and the Cycling Public:

I am the Technical Director for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. In recent weeks, Consumers Union has come under a barrage of false accusations from bicycle helmet manufacturers and a manufacturers' association over an article in the June issue of our magazine.

In that article, we reported the results of testing we conducted on two dozen 1997 models of bicycle helmets. Among those results was the discovery that two types of buckles, found on half of the tested helmets, had an alarming propensity to break during routine strength testing using industry standards.

Those buckles are identified as "ITW Nexus TSK63" and "Pinchguard" and are found on various 1997 models made by Bell, Giro, Rollerblade, Pro-Action and BSI. They broke when weights attached to the straps secured by the buckles were dropped under controlled conditions from heights of about two feet (using an 8.8-pound weight) and about an inch (using an 85-pound weight). Our tests were based on the most current safety requirements of the Snell Memorial Foundation and the American Society for Testing and Materials, two of the groups that set voluntary standards for bike helmets.

It is our conclusion that people wearing helmets equipped with these substandard buckles would probably be protected in a fall from a bike, but possibly only during the initial impact. Should the buckle break during that first impact, the helmet could come off, leaving the wearer's head vulnerable to injury in a second impact. For this reason, we recommend that people not buy helmets with the ITW Nexus TSK63 or Pinchguard buckles, until the manufacturers remedy the problem. In all other respects, the helmets using these buckles performed well in our tests.

We stressed early on in our article that any helmet - even one with a defective buckle - is better than no helmet at all. To quote the article:

    "If you already own a helmet with one of the buckles that sometimes failed, contact the helmet manufacturer ... In the meantime, continue to use the helmet. Wearing any helmet reduces your likelihood of death or serious brain injury when riding a bike."
Despite the clarity of this statement, the Protective Headgear Manufacturers' Association and some of its members have accused Consumers Union of discouraging helmet use among bicycle riders. In his May 27 letter to me, manufacturers' association President Chris Cox rightly credits his own organization, consumer advocates, medical experts and educators with raising awareness of the need for bicycle helmets. But then he goes on: "We have made some inroads, but there are still many people who are unaware of helmets and the protection they can provide. Your article, in a single motion, has negated much of the progress we have made, by emphasizing a possible failure in a small number of products, while never mentioning that helmets are a vital part of the protective equipment that every cyclist should use." (emphasis added).

For Mr. Cox's benefit, and for the benefit of all others in the manufacturing community who seem to have overlooked it in the article, let me again quote from the June issue:

    "Wearing any helmet reduces your likelihood of death or serious brain injury when riding a bike."
Consumers Union has long advocated the use of bicycle helmets. We proudly number ourselves among the organizations Mr. Cox credits with spreading the gospel about this most-necessary piece of safety equipment for cyclists. (And with a monthly pass-along readership of more than 19 million, Consumer Reports reaches a wide audience.) We would never discourage anyone from wearing a bicycle helmet, even one with a suspect buckle.

What seems to have rubbed Mr. Cox and his constituents the wrong way - and apparently blinded them to the truth - is that we're advising buyers to select helmets that comply with the standard, and are, therefore, demonstrably safer than other helmets that don't. Now, rather than spending what's necessary to make those questionable helmets safe, the manufacturers have committed their resources to an attack on an organization that has absolutely no financial stake in whether their helmets pass our tests or not.

We provided helmet manufacturers with advance copy of the June issue article, and we shared test data with representatives from Bell and ITW Nexus who - at our invitation - visited our labs on May 14. It was our hope that these manufacturers might replace these defective buckles, which mar otherwise excellent helmets. Instead, Bell Sports has impugned our integrity by misrepresenting what we wrote, and by disparaging our tests and testers. Bell's Director of Quality Assurance, Dean McGuffee, has even denied publicly that his company was given our test data.

We have asked the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate the failure of these buckles. We await its findings. Meanwhile, we continue to encourage anyone considering buying a new bicycle helmet to chose one whose buckle type consistently passed our tests. And we again call upon the manufacturing community to correct its defects. At Consumers Union, we've done our part for safety's sake. Manufacturers, please do yours.


R. David Pittle, Ph.D.
Vice President & Technical Director
Consumers Union

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