If you ride a bike and value your skull, you should make sure your bike helmet is certified. Look inside your helmet for one of the following standard certification stickers.
Manufacturers either self-certify their products or pay a third party to test and record results. The Snell standard also requires follow-up testing of helmets in the field, unlike CPSC.
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Understanding Helmet Safety Standards
The most important factor in a helmet’s ability to protect your head is how much of an impact it can withstand. But a helmet also needs to stay on your head, not break easily and be comfortable.
To measure these, manufacturers test a number of things, including an impact test that places the helmet on a head form and drops it for a controlled distance onto different surfaces. These can be flat, hemispheric or other shapes such as curbstones to simulate different types of impacts.
The test uses an accelerometer to measure the peak acceleration (in g’s) and is designed to ensure that the helmet absorbs a sufficient amount of energy to keep you safe. Other tests include a penetration test and an effectiveness test for the retention system.
Helmet Certification and Testing
A bike helmet must pass many different tests to meet most standards. Some manufacturers self-certify their helmets, while others pay a third party to do it for them.
Some of these tests are similar to those used by CPSC, and some are unique. For example, a Snell-certified helmet must have an instruction label that tells the rider that no helmet can protect against all possible head injuries and that any helmet that has been damaged may not provide maximum protection.
Another unique feature of Snell’s test facility is its ability to perform rolloff tests, which check how well the helmet stays on the head form during a fall. This is not a common test, but is important for preventing the kinds of rolloffs that can happen during real-world crashes.
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The History and Evolution of Bike Helmet Safety Standards
Bike helmets have been around since the early 1880s, when they started appearing in riding clubs. Initially, they were made of pith, which crushed easily and was not very protective.
The big step forward was the development of EPS foam, which has the property of slowing down an impact and offering more head attenuation for a given thickness. This paved the way for modern, lightweight helmets.
In the late 1980s, Giro developed an all-EPS design that was much lighter than earlier models. Its outer cover was made of thin lycra cloth, which was hand sewn.
A few years later, Pro Tec introduced a similar all-EPS design with internal reinforcing. Today, many bike helmet displays a sticker or label declaring that they comply with European CE standards, which are not as rigorous as CPSC requirements.
Comparison of Different Helmet Safety Standards
Some bike helmet standards are more rigorous than others. For instance, the Snell standard subjects helmets to harder impacts using a variety of different surfaces and drop heights. The Snell B-95 standard also requires more head coverage than the CPSC or EN-1078 standards.
Most helmet standards require that a headform be placed on an instrumented test machine and dropped for a measured distance onto an anvil. The anvil may be flat, round (hemispheric), or some other shape such as a curbstone, skate blade, or horse hoof. The headform must be unharmed and the accelerometer inside the helmet must register less than 300 g’s of force during the test.
Other tests include abrasion resistance, chinstrap test, retention strap strength, and deformation testing. A helmet that passes all of these tests receives an ECE or CPSC mark.
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The Future of Bike Helmet Safety
While a bike helmet is the best protection you can wear, it doesn’t go completely all the way. That’s why it’s so important to always keep your helmet in good condition. Cracks and crushed foam liners that can’t perform their protective job are not acceptable, nor are worn-out straps.
Epidemiologists who have studied mandatory bike helmet laws have drawn mixed conclusions on their effect, but some studies do show a reduction in overall head injuries after the introduction of helmet law. One interesting finding is that the perception of reduced risk caused by a helmet can nudge cyclists to be more reckless, or nudge drivers to be less careful.
In the US, CPSC standards replaced Snell certification with the Children’s Bicycle Helmet Safety Act of 1994. CPSC’s standard is more demanding than the European EN 1078 and slightly less demanding than Snell.