Virginia Tech’s Lab Tests Bike Helmets Better Than the Government

October 31, 2018 by Rick Stella, @RickStella

Most serious cyclists wear a helmet, but do they actually know which brand and model will protect them best in a crash?

With help from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a team of researchers at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab has devised tests and rankings that will help cyclists pick out the best helmets. They tested 30 of the most popular adult-size helmets on a test structure designed to mimic the forces placed on the skull and brain in a bike crash.

Researchers started with the same test rig used by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In essence, the machine throws an anvil multiple times at the side of a helmet and rates it for durability. But then they set the test anvil to hit the front rim of the helmet — an area the commission never evaluates.

What they discovered was that some helmets were the most vulnerable to impact on the front rim — something other independent studies of bicycle crashes had proven in the past. Despite these findings, the commission has yet to alter its testing structure.

Additionally, the Consumer Product Safety Commission only requires a helmet to be dropped at a perpendicular angle during impact, whereas studies on the variety of bike crashes show helmets striking the road at an angle. Even the speed used in the standard test isn’t representative of a typical crash.

To further differentiate itself from the  commission’s testing — and to create a more valuable ratings metric — Virginia Tech and the IIHS developed an entirely new companion study to cross-reference results of the first.

The study consists of putting a dummy’s head in a bike helmet before slamming it against a slanted anvil covered in 80-grit sandpaper to allow it to resemble asphalt. Built from the ground up, the test’s sole purpose was to create as similar an environment and angle as a cyclist’s head hitting the pavement in a crash.

The first test provides a more comprehensive picture of a helmet’s vulnerability, and the slanted anvil and helmet-wearing dummy in the second study homes in on the specific differences of each helmet. The second study examines six impact points as the helmet is dropped onto the anvil at two separate speeds. By packing each helmet with sensors, the researchers were able to chart its linear acceleration and rotational velocity —the two factors that help predict concussions.

Once the tests were completed, each helmet received a rating. The more stars equal the safest helmet the model capable of decreasing the overall risk of injury. Of the 30 helmets tested, four received perfect five-star ratings, with each featuring the innovative layer technology known as the Multi-Directional Impact Protection System or, MIPS.

“The idea behind MIPS is that, when the helmet hits the road and sticks initially due to the high friction, your head actually slides relative to the helmet,” said Virginia Tech doctoral student Megan Bland.

The four five-star helmets were Bontrager’s Ballista MIPS, Garneau’s Raid MIPS, Bell’s Stratus MIPS and Specialized’s Chamonix MIPS. Perhaps the most comforting part of the results was that no helmet scored one or zero stars, with only the Bern Watts and Lazer Genesis scoring just two.

Led by Steve Rowson, Virginia Tech associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics and the director of the university’s helmet lab, the research team plans on running as many adult bike helmets through its process as possible.

They also will test BMX, skateboarding, mountain bike and youth helmets.

“In cycling, we saw an opportunity to reach a broad cross-section of the public and bring a new level of safety to an activity with a wide range of other benefits,” Rowson said.

“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. We also hope manufacturers will use the information to make improvements,” he said.

The full list of rated helmets, as well as additional information, can be found at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab’s homepage. In addition to bike helmets, the lab also conducts research for football, hockey and soccer, with a handful of future sport-specific projects coming soon.

Editor’s note: photos by Virginia Tech Helmet Lab. 

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