Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

New bike helmets get in your face – but why, exactly?

There was joy among philistines in September when the Mike Harris régime announced that the new bike-helmet law – originated by Dianne Cunningham, a Tory – would apply only to cyclists under 18 years of age when it kicked in October 1. The idea that youths’ brains and skulls are worth protecting while adults’ are not smacks of outdated chivalry, but at root, bike-helmet use is a religious issue, with each side intractably committed to the rightness of its arguments.

And with helmets a mass-market commodity these days, helmet design per se is an increasingly important selling point for riders who wear them. Safety standards mean the performance of different helmets is broadly comparable, so helmet makers try to wow you with features – everything from genu-wine Reebok Pump inflatable bladders to various gizmos that grab you at the base of the skull (for “stability”) to disco paint finishes. And now three helmet makers – Lofox Canada Inc., Bell Sports, and Troy Lee Designs – want to sell you full-face models that wrap around your chin.

Even for a committed helmet wearer, the idea of a full-face helmet at first seems, for want of a better word, like overkill. Think about it a while longer and it becomes disquieting. Helmets do not meaningfully protect cyclists from the full range of possible biking injuries – paralysis, broken clavicles, road rash, and on and on. Warning stickers inside helmets state as much. But the fact that full-face bike helmets even exist makes one wonder how many facial injuries are taking place and if these new helmets are the best way to avoid them.

Even recognized helmet authorities like the Snell Memorial Foundation – an independent body on Long Island that publishes the prestige safety standards for bicycle, motorcycle, and other helmets – has no data on the incidence of facial injuries in cycling accidents. Hong Zhang, Snell’s director of education, notes that “I don’t know there are any ready statistics.... Even for real head injuries [as opposed to facial injuries], comprehensive data is very hard to come by.”

One unpublished study funded by a consortium of helmet makers found only 15 facial, dental, or head/neck injuries among 9,525 riders who took part in U.S. mountain-bike events in the last year. Those injuries are described only as “severe enough to prevent the rider from continuing the race.” No data exist for facial injuries sustained in everyday cycling on city streets.

And while Snell’s bike-helmet standards are joined by over a dozen other standards around the world, no standard has any requirements or provision for facial protection. (The American Society for Testing and Materials, or ASTM, is developing such a standard.) In other words, there is no proof full-face bike helmets are needed and there are no standards against which such helmets could be tested.

So why do these helmets exist, and why are they so fancy?

Take the Troy Lee TL Comp ($149 U.S. list). It’s a three-piece model (with detachable chinguard and visor) meant for downhill racing, a specialty within mountain biking in which, as the name suggests, bikers hurtle down hills, ideally without wiping out and landing nose-first (a “face-plant”). Tree branches and the like are an ever-present hazard, and top riders today wear body armor, goggles, and full-face helmets – in the U.S., one lid of choice is this wildly festooned Troy Lee model. The TL Comp looks deadly serious with its chinguard, visor, slotted and netting-covered air vents, and trademark decals.

But Lee’s style of décalcomanie elicits memories one might rather not relive – airbrushed vans, glow-in-the-dark velvet posters, dismantling Camaro engines on Sunday afternoons with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida on the turntable, and lifetime subscriptions to Easyriders, the glossy choppers-’n’-chix soft-core mag. The look gives the term “outlaw biker” new meaning.

Then there’s the Bell Bellistic, the closest thing to the Star Wars stormtrooper archetype yet achieved in cycling helmets. It’s a one-piece design, with most of the shell hand-made of fiberglas and buttressed by one of those genu-wine Reebok Pump inflatable bladders. Colour choices are binary – white or black. Bicycle cops ought to consider this helmet for the intimidation factor alone. Thing is, you can buy an entire bike for what the Bellistic costs: $438 list.

Closer to home, Lofox Canada Inc. pushed the technological envelope last year with its own model ($129 list). Intended mainly for kids, the Lofox consists of two bonded chunks of foam – one for the top of the noggin, another that wraps around the chin and the back and sides of the head. It’s not just any foam, either: While the liner (the material that actually absorbs the impact) of the Bellistic, the TL Comp, and nearly every other bike helmet on earth is made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), the Lofox uses expanded polypropylene (EPP).

Alphabet soup? Well, yes, except that EPP can withstand multiple impacts, and that has a real-world advantage: If you fall off your bike or are hit by a car, your head is likely to hit something more than once. At least, that’s the theory, one that Lofox Canada president Elmar Busch mentioned frequently in interviews. Current bike-helmet standards do not test for multiple-impact protection, but the Snell N94 standard for helmets for “non-motorized sports” like cycling, skateboarding, and inline skating does. Zhang notes that only four helmets have passed the N94 certification, and all four use EPS. Other helmets, whether made of EPS or EPP, failed the N94 test, which Zhang admits is unexpected. EPP’s multi-impact protection remains unproven.

If there’s no reference standard to test the facial protection of these helmets, why make them? “As a matter of fact, I believe there was no CAA – Civil Aviation Administration – before they invented airplanes,” responds Lofox president Busch with a smile. Troy Lee Designs product-development director Mike David explains that “the thing that I saw in downhill racing was that, when the riders went down, they were getting so much facial abrasion for a minor incident, and we felt we could improve that situation.” But, he adds, “we have not addressed serious injury beyond the certification of the helmet.” (It meets the Snell B90 bike-helmet standard, just as dozens of other helmet models do; B90 has no criteria for facial protection.)

David notes the dilemmas in designing a chinguard: Breakable, bendable, or rigid? Close to the chin or far away? Without standards, sorting through those parameters becomes educated guesswork. “My determination was that it really didn’t do a lot of good to have it way out in front of your face because it didn’t help the helmet position as much then – it still allowed the helmet to move around a lot. So ours ended up fairly close against the face... and having some flexibility to it to absorb some of the intial impact, which is all we can ask it to do.”

Over at Bell Sports, a 30-year stalwart of the sport-helmet market, senior VP Dean Fisher states that “there’s no helmet on the market that I know of, including the Bellistic, where the chin bar is going to stay out there and stay away from your face in an accident.” Even for motorcylce helmets that’s true, Fisher recalls: “Every time you face-planted, the face bar came back into your mouth and chin area – and I face-planted many times. And it’s the same with a bicycle helmet.” You can’t expect a chinguard not to smack you in the face in at least some accidents, says Fisher. But that means it’s doing its job – to absorb energy.

So: Is the wraparound helmet the way of the future? Likely not. None of these helmets has taken the world by storm, least of all the Lofox. Like all full-face helmets, it looks funny by today’s standards: The Lofox has considerably more “coverage area” than run-of-the-mill models, making it look unfashionably massive. Rightly or wrongly, less is seen as more in helmet design. Zhang reports that helmet makers complain that the new B95 bike-helmet standard, which requires a modestly larger coverage area than B90, “makes the helmet look dorky.” The Lofox meets the B95 standard, making it de facto dorky.

“I have children myself,” Busch explains. “I [said], ‘Mothers spend, very frequently, $100 for a pair of Reebok shoes... and the [helmet-law] fines now are going to be $80 or $90. So I’ll produce a quality helmet which does the job.’ But then they say, ‘Oh, no. My kid’s head? I don’t want to spend more than $20.’ That’s our difficult resistance.”

The helmet biz is a sideline for Busch, a real-estate magnate. He gives the product about another year to take off or crash and burn. The Lofox is kind of popular in Japan, slightly popular in the U.S., marginally popular in Canada. Lofox, he states, has “produced almost 9,000 helmets on spec. We’ll put it into the market. If they sell, fine. And if they don’t sell, well, I’ve had a new experience.”

UPDATE: Giro, now a subsidiary of Bell Sports (believe it), has been bruiting its Mad Max full-face model forever. Maybe someday they’ll ship it.

Published April 1996 ¶ Updated 2007.03.19

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