June 26th, 2018
The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab has released its first set of ratings for bicycle helmets, representing more than two years of dedicated research by the group that has helped drive innovation in the sports equipment industry with evidence-based, consumer-oriented safety testing.
Each helmet’s score on the familiar five-star scale reflects its ability to reduce head-injury risk. Four helmet models earned all five stars, with the Bontrager Ballista MIPS at the top. Two helmets merited only two stars; the rest fell in the three- or four-star range. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety funded the project and contributed to the research.
More than a third of Americans rode a bike in the last year. For the helmet lab’s team of injury biomechanics researchers, cycling's increasing popularity made it a natural extension of the work they’ve done for years, developing ways to assess how well protective equipment can prevent head injuries.
“Football and other sports get a lot of media attention because there is a high incidence of injury there. But just because of the sheer number of people who ride bikes, there are actually more concussions and more head injuries from cycling,” said Megan Bland, a doctoral student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics who led the research.
A database maintained by the Consumer Products Safety Commission pegged the number of cycling-related head injuries treated in U.S. emergency rooms every year at more than 80,000, and the number of cycling injuries overall is on the rise. Current data suggest that wearing a helmet reduces a cyclist’s risk of head injury by more than 50 percent. For severe head injuries, the protective benefit is even greater.
But which helmets are most effective? Until now, there hasn’t been a systematic way for consumers to know. Every bike helmet on the market is required to meet a standard related to the impact threshold for exceptionally severe head injuries, like skull fractures. But that standard is pass-fail, and didn’t help cyclists discriminate between hundreds of passing helmets; it also didn’t assess helmet performance during less-severe impacts, which are far more common and can still result in concussions and other injuries.