Bicycle helmet studies – how seriously can you take them? We are aware that there are contradictory studies that benefit both those for and those against the use of helmets, and each one states that its conclusions are the right ones. Knowing of these biases, how can you determine whether wearing a helmet will benefit you or not?
Ignoring case-control studies, where those with head injuries are compared to cyclists without, and anecdotal evidence, we are left with the actual hard research regarding a helmet’s ability to protect your head in a crash.
Helmets are designed to handle crash energy – when your helmet sustains an impact, the foam crushes decreasing the energy and extending the time in which your head stops moving forward. This reduces the impact force to your brain. A good helmet won’t shatter or break, and a great one will be made with foam that can stiffen or yield depending on the degree of impact.
The goal is for the foam to be thick enough that it won’t bottom out on impact, but not so thick that it contributes to neck strain. The rounded shape isn’t just to fit to your head, its to help reduce impact even more by easily skidding when it comes into contact with the pavement.
Helmet safety standards have been created to make sure that your helmet can be used as the manufacturer intends. The American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) is the most commonly referred to standards organization today and publishes on a variety of sport helmets. They have impact tests, strap tests, coverage requirements, as well as performance standards for different temperatures and weather conditions. Check out the Snell Memorial Foundation site for detailed bicycle helmet standards or the US CPSC.
These standards include most of the following tests. Impact testing drops a headform wearing a helmet onto an anvil…the anvil will be in a variety of shapes, each one fit the particular test. The amount of shock that the headform sustains is measured and these measurements determine how well the helmet protected it. Some impact tests drop weights onto the helmet or an attempt is made to penetrate the helmet with a sharp, heavy object.
These same tests, among others, are carried out when the helmet is wet, hot, cold, dry, etc. The strap is tested as well, by being yanked either by a machine or by the attachment of a weight. This is done to measure how much it stretches or if it breaks.
Now, short of donning a helmet and riding your bike into a deliberate crash scenario, you will have to take this research along with the countless studies both advocating for and against helmet use and make up your own mind.
Helmets have been created to lower your risk of brain damage, not prevent it, not guarantee a complete recovery after a crash. They can help you to enjoy your time riding, knowing that in addition to taking careful stock of your surroundings and using safe riding habits, you are doing everything in your power to help prevent a traumatic brain injury.
It is of course, your choice.