Bicycling helmet article is misleading
Summary: The helmet article in Bicycling's June 2013 issue has many misleading statements.
Bicycling magazine's June 2013 issue had a helmet article titled "Senseless" with a summary: "Bicycle helmets do an outstanding job of keeping our skulls intact in a major crash. But they do almost nothing to prevent concussions and other significant brain injuries--and the very government agency created to protect us is part of the problem. The time has come to demand something safer."
"Almost nothing" to prevent concussion does not reflect reality. Today's helmets do help in concussive impacts, even though they are optimized to protect against traumatic brain injury and death.
We take issue with the primary conclusion of the article. It reads as if MIPS slip-plane technology helmets were the only current helmets that offer any concussion protection. (They have an extra shell inside that can slip about 5mm in an impact.) The last pages are all about MIPS, with only the patent-holder's data to support performance claims. At the end, the author reports that he has bought four MIPS helmets for his own family, a powerful endorsement. He says "You can pretend to protect your brain, or you can spend more money and get closer to actually doing it." In a subsequent radio interview he recommends the Scott brand, although he does not say he has ever seen lab test results for them, apparently based only on the MIPS technology.
Nowhere does the article mention the key flaw in the MIPS argument: in the real world, bicycle helmets are so loosely coupled with the head that a slip-plane inside the helmet structure does not add significant sideways movement in an impact. The helmet moves anyway, unless it is constrained in a lab test. We told the author that, and pointed to it on our Web page, but he chose to ignore it and quote us and others on less basic points about MIPS as if we thought those minor points were the important ones. That is highly misleading to the reader.
There is no real-world data showing that a helmet with a slip-plane is better at preventing concussions. The helmet you wear now has a slip-plane--your head--even if you bought it for $10 at K-Mart. You can prove that by jamming your helmet down as hard as you can on your head, then seeing how easily it still moves. That will work even if you stand on your head. If the helmets doesn't move, we would agree that you need a slip-plane, either MIPS or another technology.
MIPS is not the only technology out there that provides a liner with sideways movement in a crash. Most of the plastic-construct helmet liners do, like the Cascade lacrosse helmets. 6D has motorcycle helmets with a double liner and rubber bumpers sandwiched in between the layers. Others are coming.
The article explains why MIPS has been unable to license their product to mainstream manufacturers by citing the patent-holder's assertion that helmet manufacturers rejected the MIPS technology because they did not need it to pass helmet standards and had no regard for the concussion performance of their products. We find that ludicrous.
Beyond those elements, the article has some merit. It points out the success of current helmets in mitigating catastrophic injury. It speculates that helmet use has helped to lower cyclists' deaths. There is good coverage of the obstacles to improving the CPSC bicycle helmet standard.
On the down side, the article states that "the concussion rate among bicycle riders has grown faster than the sport," without addressing how fast "the sport" has grown, or the millions of miles of bike rider exposure in commuting and utility cycling that has little to do with "the sport" and for which no US statistics are gathered. The author bemoans how innovative liner materials are eliminated by CPSC's "extreme" test environments, but does not understand why those tests are more important to the consumer than permitting innovative cardboard helmet liners. CPSC has no rotational energy test, but neither does any other bicycle helmet standard in the world.
For the record, there are some other minor errors:
- Your skull does not "absorb energy" from an impact.
- Early standards were not designed to protect from skull fracture. They were designed to protect from traumatic brain injury. Saying that the helmets were solely to protect from skull fracture is an attempt to trivialize the protective effect of current helmets.
- There is no statistical proof that half of all riders were wearing helmets by 1999 and that more riders wear them now.
- Helmet standards pioneer George Snively did not invent helmet testing in his garage.
- Pete Snell's helmet was made of pith, not leather.
- The CPSC standard did not sweep "the garbage off the shelves" in 1999, the ANSI standard had done that in 1984.
- The CPSC standard does not stifle real innovation. It does require the impact performance consumers need along with anything new.
- "Back in 2008 most people were only beginning to grasp the seriousness of concussions." But an ASTM task group had already been working on concussion and rotational injury testing concepts for more than a decade.
The article is intended to be provocative from the title to the end, and it succeeds. We would have welcomed more balance in the new technology commentary.
On the author's Web page you can read:
"Bike helmets protect the head against one thing: skull fracture. And skull fracture has nothing to do with concussion. They've done studies. I've read them. There's no correlation. So now you're wondering what your bike helmet does to protect you against concussion. The answer is jack squat."
That is even worse than the article in its attempt to trivialize the protection offered by current helmets. No matter what technology may someday be proven to more effectively protect against concussion, every helmet made will still have to protect against traumatic brain injury--not skull fracture--as today's helmets do. And all of today's bicycle helmets do more than "jack squat" to prevent concussion, although they are indeed optimized to protect against traumatic brain injury and death.
This page was updated or partially revised on: March 8, 2015.