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A novel approach to bike helmets

Biomechanics Team

Think back to your first car. Maybe it didn’t have airbags or even seat belts. Over the years, safety improvements have added anti-lock brakes, rear cameras and side air bags. However, in the world of bike safety, helmets have remained essentially unchanged.

To meet current safety requirements, helmets need to withstand 300 Gs of pressure (300 times the force of gravity). “They’ve changed the design – made it lighter, look better, but as far as technology that really helps prevent brain injury, nothing new has been adopted,” explains Michael Bottlang, Ph.D. “A sticker on your helmet just means it has met that basic requirement.”

Using a novel analysis of helmet technologies, Dr. Bottlang created the HIT (Helmet Impact Testing) Facility at LRI. HIT reproduces the various angles and impact that occur from a bike fall, including a traumatic brain injury (TBI). “Helmets were designed to prevent your skull from cracking, no one was looking at what happens to the brain itself,” he notes. “Skull injury and brain injury are very different.” In a bike accident, TBIs occur more often than skull fractures. And, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, bicycling has the highest number of TBI injuries among all sports categories – almost 40,000 more than football.

Dr. Bottlang’s team has filmed a video showing what happens when their testing machine takes a simulated brain using raw eggs and compares the protection of the helmet when it strikes straight down versus an oblique angle. The eggs stay intact with the straight strike, but crack when the angle is changed.

“There aren’t any chemicals that can put scrambled eggs back together,” he states. “The one shot we have is a better helmet. It’s a huge impact we can have on consumer education, manufacturers and test labs.”

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