Do Better Helmets Really Mean Safer Cyclists?
It's a question of safety numbers versus safety in numbers
On Tuesday, March 19, in the year 2019 A.D., after weeks of teasing us that something absolutely huge was coming, Trek Bikes stunned the world when it revealed a brand-new bicycle helmet that’s lined with some sort of revolutionary squishy green matrix that purports to be up to 48 times more effective than regular foam.
Well, okay, “stunned” isn’t the best word. During the protracted teasing period, everyone just assumed Trek was going to unveil a new frame made out of 3D-printed carbon or something, so the general reaction to the announcement was more like, “Oh…oh. OH!!!” See, first we were surprised, then we were disappointed, then we realized, “Yeah, helmets really should be a lot safer, shouldn’t they?” Articles in pretty much every media outlet immediately followed, from Pinkbike to Forbes.
Setting aside the veracity of Trek’s claims for a moment, introducing a completely new type of bicycle helmet is probably the savviest business decision a bike company has made since the introduction of the safety bicycle. A new bike, however revolutionary it may ostensibly be, is a tough purchase to justify unless there’s something really wrong with your current one. A new helmet, on the other hand, is tough not to justify, especially when there’s already a tremendous amount of societal pressure on cyclists to wear them, and when friends, family, and loved ones are now imploring you to upgrade to the new miracle helmet they read about on the Internet.
As someone who’s long been critical of our fixation on bicycle helmets, even I found myself skeptical of my own skepticism when confronted with all the virtual ink spilled in order to extoll the virtues of this superior new brain bucket. After all, a good deal of my cynicism has always been predicated on compelling evidence that foam bicycle helmets are not nearly as effective as we make them out to be. So if Trek’s claims are true and its helmet is indeed exponentially safer, does that mean I have to rethink my entire bike safety philosophy? And does the advent of this new helmet mean you’re now a maniac for not buying one right away?
Well, Trek says its new WaveCel (that’s what the squishy matrix is called) helmet is “up to 48x more effective at preventing concussions,” which sounds impressive. This assertion is also followed by an asterisk, which denotes the following:
*Results based on AIS 2 Injury (BrIC) at 6.2 m/s test at 45° comparing a standard EPS Helmet and the same helmet modified with WaveCel insert as described in detail in Comparison of Bicycle Helmet Technologies in Realistic Oblique Impacts.
Already, MIPS is disputing Trek’s claim. MIPS stands for “Multi-directional Impact Protection System,” and it was the hot new helmet technology before WaveCel came along. (Trek also sells MIPS helmets.) According to a recent story in VeloNews, MIPS made the following claim:
MIPS says it put WaveCel through its own battery of tests and was unable to replicate the results Bontrager has boldly claimed.
Of course this is exactly what you’d expect them to say, but there does seem to be wide agreement on one thing, which is that current bicycle helmet testing protocol is all over the place:
And here we arrive at a problem that MIPS brought up recently: the lack of consistent third-party testing. MIPS is conducting its own battery of tests and comparing those results to Bontrager’s claims. Bontrager put its helmet through its own protocol. Those two testing protocols may or may not be the same. We just don’t know where MIPS and Bontrager line up on its testing and interpretation of results.
Nevertheless, let’s just assume Trek’s claims are totally accurate and wearing one will significantly reduce your likelihood of concussion. What then? Surely you’d have to be an idiot not to wear such a helmet at all times. In fact, it should probably be mandatory to wear such a helmet, right?
Wrong. Even WaveCel doesn’t obviate the safety in numbers effect, by which cycling becomes quantifiably safer as more people ride. Also, even if someone were to invent a helmet that was 100 percent effective at preventing all head injuries short of decapitation, America’s just not ready for it. Think about it: our media and our government agencies already blame you for whatever happens to you if you’re not wearing a helmet, and that’s just based on those quasi-useless pre-WaveCel beer coolers we’ve been wearing for the last 30 years. If helmets were 100 percent effective and you weren’t wearing one, it would probably be legal to shoot you on sight.
If anything, the WaveCel should frighten you as much as it intrigues you. Basically, helmet effectiveness statistics have an inverse relationship with how much the general non-cycling public cares about your safety, and “48x more effective” could drag the concern factor right down to “don’t give a fuck.” (Though it’s arguably there already.)
None of this is to say that Trek (or, more accurately WaveCel, a Portland, Oregon, LLC that has an exclusive relationship with Trek) developing better helmet technology is a bad thing. Hopefully this is just the beginning. It’s about time the bike industry takes a break from developing increasingly inconvenient bottom bracket standards and focuses instead on how to enhance the safety benefits of a design that’s remained fundamentally unchanged for far too long. It’s also time for these companies to collaborate and improve the testing protocol.
But whether better helmets meaningfully change the calculus when it comes to safer cycling for everyone is something else. It certainly stands to reason that the pointy end of the cycling public—the go-fast, competitive risk-takers out front—should wear the safest helmets possible, and the industry has a responsibility to provide them. As for the rest of the pack—the shoppers, the commuters, the people who are riding wherever just because—what really benefits them is more of them. By all means these riders should also have access to better helmets, but just because the helmets are better doesn’t mean they should feel undue pressure to wear them, in the same way they shouldn’t feel pressured to wear Lycra or upgrade to faster wheels. So as someone who likes to move around the pack, I’d certainly be compelled to choose a WaveCel for my forays at the front, but I’d also feel just as comfortable leaving it at home when I ride to the store.
Hopefully Trek’s claims are borne out, and hopefully this is just the beginning of better bike helmets. But ultimately, no matter how advanced the tech, putting more heads in helmets will always be far less important than putting more asses on bikes.