Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute

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The Helmet Update

Vol. 11, No 1 - June, 1993

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We're Back!

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' interests.

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 well.

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 Australia standard.

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 further information.)

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' findings: 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 buckle...

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.

The Helmet Update - Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute
Randy Swart, Editor
4611 Seventh Street South
Arlington, VA 22204-1419 USA
(703) 486-0100 (voice)
(703) 486-0576 (fax)