By Sean Dormer
About a year ago, it was time for me to buy a new bike helmet. As coincidence would have it, I was also in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out court case against one of the world’s most well-known bike manufacturers about a defective helmet retention system. Our client’s helmet came off during what was otherwise a pretty average accident. It should have stayed on. He got a skull fracture, brain bleed, and permanent brain damage. He should have walked away with a minor concussion at worst. With that context, I spent about two hours in the store trying to pick a helmet. I read about 20 different instructions manuals, datasheets, and testing reports. I wanted the very best. In the end, I realized that my choice really ought to boil down to just three things: (1) provable certification; (2) safe fit; and (3) concussion protection. This article is about the first two. The third topic is a huge debate in the bike helmet industry right now, and isn’t really well-settled yet. I hope to cover that one in the future. For now, here are two big lessons we’ve learned by suing bike helmet manufacturers over defective helmets:
Are more expensive helmets better at protecting your head? What should a bike helmet protect you from? The answer (there’s a lawyer joke in here somewhere): it depends, and bike helmet manufacturers love to play on this lack of knowledge to upsell people to more expensive helmets.
In the U.S., the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates bike helmet performance. The CPSC’s bike helmet rules have been the same since 1999, and they’re published at 16 CFR, Part 1203.
The CPSC bike helmet standards judge helmet impact protection with a series of tests. Here are a few of the main test requirements:
The CPSC chose the 300g limit because keeping acceleration under that limit is shown to do a pretty good job of preventing skull fractures, which in turn helps prevent bleeding on the brain and other traumatic brain injuries. If a rider hits their head with a helmet on and still gets a skull fracture or brain bleed, the helmet might be defective. We’ve seen cheap helmets fail, and we’ve seen expensive helmets fail. In theory, all of them are supposed to protect against the same severity of impacts to the same minimum degree. If they don’t, it’s time to talk to a Denver helmet defect lawyer.
There are some optional certifications that involve more stringent tests. For example, a helmet certified by the Snell Memorial Foundation might do a better job at protecting against impacts. Another one that’s worth looking into is the Danish e-bike standard. There are plenty of better-certified helmets that aren’t expensive at all.
Does that mean you should buy the cheapest helmet you can find? Not so fast! Impact protection isn’t everything, and money might buy other important safety features. For example, foam impact protection doesn’t protect very well against concussions. And cheaper helmets are more likely to be one-size-fits-all, which makes them more likely to come off in an accident.
What’s the most important factor in choosing a bike helmet? Easy: fit. The harder question is how to choose a bike helmet that fits right.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) wrote the bike helmet rules back in 1999. In 1999, bike helmets came in a lot of different sizes, with different thicknesses of pads for the last little bit of customization. Nowadays, helmets come in a couple of cross-over sizes (think “XS/S/M” and “L/XL/XXL”) or even on-size-fits-all.
How did they do it? They added that plastic band that goes around the back of the rider’s head, usually with a dial or other adjustment system. Some companies call this a “fit system.” Some call it a “retention system” (or part of the retention system). Some call it both. Bike helmet experts often call it an “occipital stabilizer.”
The problem with these dial-in retention systems (occipital stabilizers) is that they’re not standardized or regulated at all. Their strength varies widely. Their anchoring to the rest of the helmet varies widely. They vary widely in whether they un-ratchet when pulled on. We’re not legally allowed to name names here, but it’s enough to say that some companies carefully test for these factors and others don’t do nearly as well.
The sad truth is that one-size-fits-all helmets are a lot cheaper to make when the fit system is also cheap and poorly anchored. Instead of having to buy expensive industrial foam molds for five different sizes, the company only needs one. With the occipital stabilizer dial tightened at the back of the helmet, a potential buyer won’t usually notice that the helmet can come off as soon as the stabilizer breaks. And most companies recommend tightening the dial before checking for fit.
So, how can we protect ourselves? Check fit with the dial all the way loose. Put the helmet on and make the chinstrap snug (but comfortable, per the CPSC-required recommendations). Leave the dial at the back all the way loose. See if you can rotate the helmet off forwards. Really try! Move straps past your ears as needed, and pull hard. If it’s close, remember that an accident is going to pull a lot harder than you will, and choose a different helmet.
Sadly, not everyone is going to read this guide before buying a helmet, and helmet manufacturers often tell a different story. It’s in their interest to sell more helmets, and no one tells them they can’t tell people to tighten the dial when checking for fit. If a rider fits a bike helmet per the manufacturer’s instructions and it comes off in an accident and results in more severe injuries, it’s time to talk to a defective helmet lawyer. It doesn’t always mean there’s a case, but it’s worth looking into.