Some bike helmets protect heads better than others

Some bike helmets protect heads better than others
BLACKSBURG—Bicycle helmets have been shown to reduce the risk of head injuries in cycling, but consumers have had little purchasing information until now.

A new ratings program, based on collaborative research by Virginia Tech and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, has helped fix that.

The first 30 helmets to be tested—all popular adult-size models—show a range of performance, with four earning the highest rating of five stars, two earning two stars, and the rest in the three- to four-star range. Cost wasn’t a good predictor of performance. Both the $200 Bontrager Ballista MIPS and the $75 Specialized Chamonix MIPS earned five stars.

“Our goal with these ratings is to give cyclists an evidence-based tool for making informed decisions about how to reduce their risk of injury,” said Dr. Steve Rowson, director of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab and an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics. “We also hope manufacturers will use the information to make improvements.”

While the government requires that helmets pass a series of tests before being sold in the U.S., the new ratings rely on a more realistic evaluation based on joint Virginia Tech and IIHS research.

A total of 835 bicyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles in the U.S. in 2016. That is the highest number of cyclist deaths since 1991. More than half of those killed weren’t wearing helmets. Helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of a head injury by 50 percent.

“Hopefully these ratings will help consumers make the best choice when purchasing a helmet, so they can be the safest they can be,” noted Sam Rooks, vice president of underwriting and policy services for Virginia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co., which is a supporter of IIHS.

The bike helmet rating system developed by Rowson and his colleagues builds on their years of experience evaluating other types of sports head protection. The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab currently rates football and hockey helmets, as well as soccer headgear.

Bike helmets in the U.S. are required by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to pass a series of tests in which helmets are struck against an anvil at a set speed. The only requirement is that the helmets prevent head impact accelerations over 300 g, a level associated with skull fractures or severe brain injury. There is no requirement for helmets to limit concussion-level forces, which are more common among bicyclists in crashes.

The lab is continuing to test more styles of adult helmets, including mountain bike and skate/BMX helmets, and will update its website as new ratings are released. Evaluations of youth helmets also are planned. To view the helmet ratings, go to vt.edu/helmet, or for information on the study visit iihs.org.

Media: Contact Eleanor Nelsen, Virginia Tech, at 540-231-2761 or Joe Young, IIHS, at 434-985-9244. 



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