Bicycle Helmets: Heads Up

The Truth About Safety, Testing & Technology

A recent change to the design of bicycle helmets is intriguing. Manufacturers tout safer construction, but that claim hasn’t been tested in the real world.

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Whether you shop for a helmet at a mass retailer, a specialty bike store or online, you’re likely to come across a MIPS-equipped bike helmet. MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) is marketed by its Swedish developers, MIPS AB, as a technology that aims to mimic the natural protection that’s provided to the brain by cerebral spinal fluid. (This fluid helps to diffuse potential brain injury by allowing the brain to slide around during impact rather than absorb the brunt of the force.) A helmet that incorporates MIPS technology is said to help to absorb the rotational force that typically is experienced in a crash.

(Editor’s Note: Upon reading this, you might conclude that the protection that’s mentioned applies to concussions. In fact, no bike-helmet manufacturer can claim that its product protects against concussions. The protection here is meant to prevent skull fracture and subdural hematoma.)

If you peek inside some MIPS helmets, you’ll find that the interior often looks similar to a non-MIPS helmet. That’s because the yellow MIPS layer can be concealed beneath the foam liner. Also concealed by these helmet-makers: Testing to prove that the premise of the MIPS helmet is inconclusive.

Unlike conventional bike-helmet tests, in which a helmet is dropped onto a flat surface, MIPS-helmet testing involves side impact. This type of crash better represents a real-life crash scenario, according to Peter Halldin, who is one of the developers of MIPS-helmet technology. Halldin cites years of research and studies that were conducted by MIPS researchers that show more falls and impacts that involve the head happen at a side angle rather than from the top or front.

Separate helmet-safety standards that are set forth by ASTM International, Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Snell Memorial Foundation are based only on impacts to the helmet from the front or top. (Snell is an independent organization that describes itself as being dedicated to researching, developing and testing helmet-safety standards.)

Reaction to the MIPS concept among helmet manufacturers generally has been positive, although some prefer to wait until they have more evidence that MIPS technology is worth the investment. According to the MIPS website, BRG Sports, which is one of the largest helmet manufacturers, entered into a formal partnership with MIPS in 2014. The result is a steady increase in MIPS-equipped models from BRG’s Bell and Giro brands. Other manufacturers followed, including Lazer Sports, POC, Scott Sports and Smith Optics.

Executives of Lazer Sports and Scott Sports used the phrases “born out of science,” “very academic-oriented” and “adds an extra dimension of safety” to describe MIPS and to explain why their company developed helmets that include the technology. However, when  we pressed them for more specifics, the executives declined. This leaves us concerned that the inclusion of MIPS technology might be at least as much a consideration of the opportunity to glean more profit from the helmets’ sale than it is of consumer benefit.

Ed Becker, who is Snell’s executive director, says current tests at Snell “don’t emphasize MIPS motion in any way.” Becker explains that “there would have to be a lot of crashes” in MIPS-equipped helmets to provide sufficient real-world data to see how well they protect during impact. He adds that, although MIPS technology was introduced to help moderate rotational shock to the head, particularly during side impacts, “what is uncertain is whether this is a very important source of injury.”

Some Snell-certified helmets that are on the market incorporate MIPS technology. However, the certification isn’t MIPS-related.

Becker admits that “putting a slip layer between the interior of the helmet and the wearer’s head could create a slip zone to reduce rotational coupling between the head and the helmet.

“If a helmet received a sharp force, it wouldn’t be directly transmitted to the head, although whether that’s a valuable function is uncertain, [because] no one knows how dangerous those rotational functions are,” he says.

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