Crash test dummies wearing cycle helmets

How to Choose a Cycle Helmet

Seeing a large chunk lush black hair attached to a crimson scalp on the road in front of me has left a lasting impression.

I was in waiting at traffic lights surrounded by lots of cycles and cars. The lights turned green, we moved off. Suddenly the guy in front of me was taken out by a driver who turned left across his path. I looked up and he was covered in blood and in a state of shock. The driver, now out of his car, was a doctor at the local A&E. He apologised and took the victim to work with him. I carried on my way, thankful I had not been 1 position ahead in the queue. I concluded that if someone committed to saving life could be so careless I really needed to protect myself. Since then I’ve chosen to wear a cycle helmet. 35 years ago cycle helmets weren’t a thing so I wore an ice hockey helmet!

Today there is a huge array of head wear on sale but how to choose a cycle helmet? Helmets are promoted as safety equipment but it is not easy to find out if a £10 helmet provides less protection than a £400+ one (keep reading for the best I’ve found!). So I guess most people choose on price and colour. A few years ago I heard that MIPS helmets offer better protection. I bought one of the cheapest, despite there being no improvement in the official safety rating achieved (BS EN 1078).

Advances in helmet standards – not

I’d not seen any independent testing before so this article about how KASK test their helmets using WG11 piqued my interest as did this response from MIPS. They are long and technically detailed but it is shocking to learn that 10 years of talk have not led to anything the consumer can understand when choosing a cycle helmet. Especially when there is so much pressure to wear a helmet. My view of the situation painted by the articles is…

  • There is plenty of evidence that sudden rotation of the head is bad for the brain.
  • Friction between scalp and helmet major factor in determining transfer of forces. Low friction is good
  • Hair lowers friction – hipsters note it needs to be on scalp not chin
  • Head-shape is a key factor in friction between helmet and skull.
  • Arguments abound about what head-shape & weight to use in the crash test dummies and how to test
    •   MIPS use a higher friction head shape, so sell rubber bands to allow the inner and outer parts of helmet to move for £30 per helmet
    •   KASK use a lower friction head shape in WG11, so can claim an acceptable level of brain twist with out paying MIPS for their rubber bands
  • 10 years of standards discussion but no standards agreed
  • ie Vested interest groups (manufacturers) on the standards bodies more interested in commercial advantage than protecting riders’ brains.  
  • Note manufacturers have no problem claiming safety benefits of their products & remain committed to updating their product range with on-trend colour schemes

If international standards bodies are failing riders, this database of independent cycle helmet crash testing results has about 180 helmets scored in linear and rotational crash tests. This could be helpful in helping you choose a cycle helmet.

How much do I have to pay for a safe helmet?

Cycle Helmet - better fitting gift for cyclists
Giro cycle helmet with MIPS

The Good news is that cycle helmets don’t have to break the bank starting at £10. For about £40 you can buy a helmet that claims extra protection. Keep an eye on the colour though as it can make a big different to the price for the same helmet. How that can be a justifiable business model for safety equipment is anyone’s guess!

I am replacing our helmets with MIPS ones mainly because ‘every little helps’ not with any confidence it will really make much difference in an accident particularly if in collision with a car or bus, but I do cycle off road quite a lot. In an accident cyclists are most likely to suffer abrasions and fractures, head injuries account for about 10% of injuries. How many of those would a helmet actually help with? Perhaps a more expensive helmet will salve my conscience that I did my bit to protect myself and family.

I really cannot see the point in spending £££ on a helmet, when there is no measurable benefit and saved budget can be spent on gloves (hand protection) or lights (be safe be seen).

Fit for Use

It goes without saying that a helmet that doesn’t fit is not going to offer as much protection. Fortunately once you’ve chosen the size of shell then most helmets have plenty of adjustment to allow a good fit. The main areas are chin strap and width. Leave enough room for a finger between strap and chin. At the rear use the adjuster to hold the head lightly. Too tight and you’ll get a headache. Some helmets also have adjustment around the ears.

For some people one fit is good enough. If you wear a hat, adjust your helmet to the head, and again when you are not wearing it. If you have long hair adjust if your hair is up or down.

Finally if you have a helmet mounted light or camera, make sure the mount doesn’t interfere with the straps or safety features of the helmet.

Helmet compulsion

Some lobby groups are very keen that cyclists wear helmets (RoSPA, BMA). However the evidence seems to be mixed at best, with an article in the BMJ, Professor David Spiegelhalter rips apart the methodology used in most studies saying the impact of compulsory helmet use “on hospital admission for cycling head injuries [in Canada] “seems to have been minimal.”” Although this later study says the opposite.

The biggest argument against compulsion is that increased cycling improves health, at a population level. The benefits of improved health out weigh any benefits of improved safety from helmet use while cycling if compulsion reduces cycling take up. Netherlands and Norway seem to have higher cycle use, lower head injuries and no helmet compulsion. The argument is that improved cycle infrastructure improves population health through increased cycling and reduces (head) injuries. So in the UK it remains a matter of individual choice.

I hope you found this article a good aid to choose a cycle helmet, please share with your friends or leave a comment and good luck on choosing what to wear on your head while cycling!

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