First Things First: Why Are Helmets So Important?

Some people worry that the promotion of bicycle helmets — and the many state laws that require them on public roads — imply that cycling is a particularly unsafe activity, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Protecting your head from injury is incredibly important in any fast-paced or impact-driven sport, and cycling is no different. But research has clearly shown that the health benefits and increased longevity associated with regular cycling vastly outweighs the risks involved, particularly for road cycling as a regular form of transportation.

One of the world’s most cycling-friendly cities should be no surprise as the source of much high-quality data about cycling. A study conducted in Copenhagen in 2000 found that people who cycle to work experience longer lives, even when controlled for other physical activities and sports (Andersen, Schnohr, Schroll and Hein, 2000).

Even more recently, a study of 67,000 women in Shanghai published in 2007 found that women who cycle as transportation had a 20 to 50% reduction in mortality rates over the 5.7 years of the study. Walking as transportation or a leisure activity, on the other hand, was only weakly associated with decreased mortality.

How Long Have Helmets Been Used to Protect Athletes During Sporting Activities?

Helmets have been around for thousands of years as part of combat armor, but helmets for sports and crash protection have their origin in motorcycle and airplane development.

Even as late as the 1950s, head protection in sports like football, hockey, and motorcar racing were left completely up to the athlete, and most individuals and organizations didn’t bother with head protection at all.

Until the British Standards Institute published the world’s first crash helmet standard in 1952, what could be called a “helmet” was left up to the discretion of the helmet producer, and most of the focus was on the design rather than the function of the final product.

The first mass-market product we’d probably call a helmet today was introduced in 1975 by the Bell Autoparts company. Other sports and automotive gear manufacturers also entered the space, but there were few standards for helmets in the US until 1984, when the American National Standards Institute published a series of standards to help modernize safety gear and remove ineffective helmets from regular use.

After that point, development of safety standards for helmet production stalled for many years. It’s incredibly difficult to prove the efficacy of helmets against head trauma, fractures, and concussion in the real world, as every single crash and head injury is unique.

However, increased understanding of head trauma and biomechanics has recently allowed for much improved lab testing of helmets’ ability to redistribute impact and rotational forces, now widely considered the most important factors in helmet safety.

How is Helmet Safety Determined Today? Who is Responsible for Testing Helmets’ Safety Features?

In the US, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is responsible for conducting standardized testing and certifications for all bike helmets sold in the United States, but their tests only measure linear forces (by dropping a helmet vertically onto a perpendicular surface). While this kind of testing shows how effective a helmet is at preventing direct-impact skull fractures, it’s not effective in testing rotational forces, the cause of many real-world injuries during bike crashes.

Most producers and researchers consider such testing lagging behind the most cutting-edge technologies and our best understanding of brain injury likely to take place during a severe crash, and augment federal standards with third-party testing and ratings available to the public. The best-known testing in the US is that done by The Helmet Lab at Virginia Tech, which independently tests football, hockey, and bike helmets, among other sports such as soccer or baseball to give them a star rating and a numerical score that complements (and is even more strenuous than) federal standards.

As of April 2021, the Virginia Tech lab has tested and rated 119 bike helmets in collaboration with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety using impact tests to evaluate helmets’ ability to reduce linear acceleration and rotational velocity.

Notably, the top 20 helmets tested by Virginia Tech all use MIPS or WaveCel technology (Brown), and WaveCel does its own independent testing to further understand angular head accelerations known to cause traumatic brain injury and helmets’ abilities to help reduce impact forces. Read more about WaveCel testing and research and how it compares to MIPS technology with our Evaluation of a Novel Bicycle Helmet Concept in Oblique Impact Testing (PDF).

Chase safest with us. Grab your WaveCel helmet today, whether you’re cycling, skiing, or snowboarding (with more to come soon).