Skepticism

I Crashed My Bike, Hit My Head, and Got Smarter

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Transcript:

A few weeks ago, I did something stupid: I took my ebike off-road, onto a trail that was very rutted and dotted with giant rocks, and I ended up pitching myself off the bike, over the handlebars, and onto my left side, leaving me with a sizable lump on my leg, a stupidly painful scrape on my arm, and a head that ached for several days, because I definitely slammed my brain caddy onto one of those rocks.

Luckily, I wasn’t quite as stupid as I could have been, because I was wearing my trusty helmet. See? It has a lightning bolt on it that makes me go faster, apparently to my detriment.

I was a bit annoyed, not just because I was in a lot of pain but also because I JUST bought this helmet earlier this year and now I have to retire it. “But hold on,” you may be thinking, “that helmet doesn’t look cracked! Surely it’s still good?”

Nope! Helmets are single-use safety items: the first time you actually need it is the last time you should use it. That’s because a helmet is made up of protective foam that is held in place by a thin layer of plastic, and when you smash the helmet, the foam underneath the plastic can compress and crack to absorb energy that would otherwise be rocketing into your brain, and it can do that without the outer layer of plastic cracking. You can’t tell how badly the foam is cracked and compressed without slicing through the plastic, so it’s best to just replace it. Yes, I know, that’s $60 down the drain but I can assure you, your brain is worth a lot more. Other people’s brains are also worth more, which is why you should cut the straps before you throw it away. That way, someone can’t find it in the trash and wear it, or worse, resell it to some unsuspecting bargain hunter.

I had only just bought this helmet this year because I had had my previous helmet for about 8 years, and many organizations and manufacturers recommend replacing a helmet every 5-10 years. It’s not because that lifesaving foam degrades, which is what I thought before I fell down this rabbit hole: it’s actually because the plastic shell is more likely to degrade, and the straps and clasps holding the helmet onto your head are as well.

So! I was sad to bid my almost brand new helmet adieu, but I immediately got to work looking for a new one. And this time I decided to take it seriously. You see, I’ve been in a LOT of accidents throughout my life: I rode my bike around rush hour traffic in Boston, using it as my primary mode of transportation for a good 6 years as I commuted back and forth to work and took it out to meet friends all over town, plus the occasional long weekend ride up and down the east coast. In that time I’ve gone up over the hood of a car that ignored a stop sign, I’ve been “doored” by a cab driver who didn’t look before swinging his door open, and I was T-boned by an SUV that pulled into a McDonald’s without looking. Miraculously, in all that time, through all those situations plus a few years riding in London and a few years playing roller derby, I’ve never really hit my head hard enough to wonder if I had lost a few brain cells.

And now, in my old age, cycling somewhere far from any cars, I managed to smack my head so hard that I had trouble focusing my eyes right away, and I had a low level headache for a good week after, and my partner was on alert for any sign that I was behaving in a more goofy fashion than usual, because concussions are no joke. As an aside, I was worried that I was actually at increased risk of a concussion because I had one when I was a kid (from skateboarding without a helmet), but apparently it’s only true that you’re more likely to get a 2nd concussion very soon after the first, and that’s because you are more likely to be dizzy and kind of stupid after the first one.

Anyway, it was all enough to scare me into paying a bit more attention to what helmet I choose for my next one. I’ve always just assumed that all helmets are more or less the same from a safety standpoint – after all, helmets sold in the US need to conform to certain standards set by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission since 1998. I figured if you’re paying more, you’re paying for aesthetics or aerodynamics or a lighter weight. So I always just picked a helmet from a major brand that was certified for both bicycling as well as skateboarding, which I still do occasionally.

But when researching my new helmet, with a new focus on keeping my brain as safe as possible, I realized that it’s not quite that simple. The good news is that there have been some advances in technology in the past few years that may make helmets safer; the bad news is that it’s kind of unclear what works and how well it works.

For instance, I quickly realized that “MIPS” was the new gold standard of helmet safety. “MIPS” stands for “multi-directional protection system,” and it’s essentially a thin lining that allows a helmet to slide around on your head a bit, for the purpose of preventing brain injury due to rotational forces. Because when you get in an accident, it’s not necessarily just like an anvil dropping on your head: you can be hit on the side, front, or back of the head, and that force can twist your head, and thus the brain inside your head, and that can cause damage, including concussions, according to much of the research out there.

So the idea behind MIPS makes sense, and it seems to have become ubiquitous in the bike helmet marketplace: if you want a helmet with “extra” safety, you either get one with MIPS or a similar technology that various companies have put out under different trademarked names. So I got a MIPS helmet and congratulated myself on being such a safe adult.

BUT THEN, a viewer tipped me off (thanks DonPedro!) to an ongoing conversation in the helmet industry revealing that MIPS might not be the magical tech I assumed. 

First, I realized that “MIPS” isn’t a generic, open-source tech: it’s a company. It was invented in the late ‘90s by two Swedish scientists: Hans von Holst, a neurosurgeon who was tired of seeing so many brain injuries from crashes, and Peter Halldin, an engineer who went on to study biomechanics in order to perfect what became known as MIPS. Over several years of careful testing, the two found that a low-friction layer between your head and the helmet significantly reduced rotational forces in angular impact tests. Hooray! So they immediately patented it. Boo!

Look, “scientist” isn’t necessarily the most lucrative profession, and I do not object to these guys wanting their due. But compare this story to the story of another important Swedish safety invention: in the 1950s, engineer Nils Bohlin developed the 3-point seatbelt for Volvo, who patented it and then immediately announced that the technology was completely free to use by any other manufacturer that wanted it, and in fact they spend a huge amount of effort CONVINCING the rest of the industry that the design worked to save lives. Volvo actually continues to be pretty awesome in that respect to this day, as in 2019 they announced that they were releasing nearly 50 years of safety research to the general public so that other manufacturers can take advantage of it.

Meanwhile, MIPS can only be used if helmet manufacturers pay a licensing fee. And because it’s caught on as THE safety feature, a lot of companies have dutifully lined up and paid out, hoping to get customers like me who know “MIPS” means “safe” and so we searched that term and bought the cutest option that has it.

But IS MIPS safer? That’s being hotly debated, with at least one large helmet manufacturer saying it isn’t. Kask is an Italian company that hasn’t hopped on the MIPS bandwagon, and they’ve just recently started releasing statements that they’ve conducted experiments proving MIPS is no safer than a normal helmet.

To be clear, third party research HAS shown that MIPS works. Virginia Tech has an entire research wing dedicated to testing and ranking bike helmets for safety, and they have given MIPS their highest marks for reducing rotational velocity in crashes. But Kask points out that the standard testing for bike helmets may be flawed in MIPS favor, because they use headforms that don’t actually mimic human heads. Specifically, the headforms are a bit tacky – meaning rubbery, not, like, out of style – and don’t have any kind of “skin” or “hair.” Why does that matter? Well, because skin and hair are like your own natural MIPS: your skin naturally moves over your skull in exactly the way that MIPS does, so does MIPS actually make any difference if the person hitting their head actually has, you know, skin?

Kask says it doesn’t, and further they say that they’ve been doing tests with a far superior headform that shows that their own helmets perform just as well as helmets with MIPS. Unfortunately, because capitalism (again), they haven’t released all of their testing data, so we don’t know how well other helmet brands performed with these superior headforms. And we don’t (yet) have independent data from researchers like those at Virginia Tech, so we have to take it all with a grain of salt.

That said, I don’t regret getting a helmet with MIPS. I got it on sale so it actually cost $20 less than my last MIPS-less helmet, and I honestly don’t care about aerodynamics or ventilation (factors that some people say make them avoid MIPS, although others say that newer MIPS helmets are just as good in those realms). None of the data I’ve seen suggests that MIPS makes helmets any less safe, and at least one group of independent researchers found that MIPS works even when taking into account Kask’s concerns about the headforms. They didn’t have the new models that Kask used, so instead they modified the old headforms with nylon stockings to mimic “skin” and wigs for hair, and found that yes, “skin” and hair helped rotational forces in the same way that MIPS did – but additionally they found that MIPS still added an additional benefit even over skin and hair.

To sum up: we need more research, and we need more independent, open-source research. And I need to stop trying to zoom up hills I have absolutely no business zooming up.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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