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New-Fangled Bicycle Helmets: Not Just Brain Buckets Anymore

By Peter Suciu
Sep 21, 2012 5:00 AM PT

There is no denying that serious cyclists adopt some very specific forms of fashion. The jerseys and shorts are tight-fitting to reduce drag, gloves are worn both to provide padding while gripping the handlebars and to protect hands during a crash, and shoes are a fashion statement all of their own. But one piece of equipment has become somewhat ubiquitous among casual and hardcore riders alike these days -- the bicycle helmet.

New-Fangled Bicycle Helmets: Not Just Brain Buckets Anymore

The truth is that many still opt not to wear helmets for a plethora of reasons -- from daily bicycle commuters who worry that it could mess up their hair, to old school racers convinced they "know how to fall." However, despite such reluctance, it's clear that a helmet -- or "brain bucket," as cyclists tend to think of it -- does offer protection, especially in a serious crash.

Yet much of the development in the past decade has been to make helmets more stylish, more breathable and more comfortable. These factors no doubt will encourage riders to wear a helmet -- but safety improvements remain slow in coming.

"We're seeing things like helmets that have larger vents, which makes them cooler, but that doesn't really matter for safety," said Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

Technology Add-Ons

The materials used in helmets are essentially the same: a polystyrene foam body with a plastic outer shell. This material typically provides a reasonable amount of protection should a bicycle rider fall or crash.

A few companies have added lights to helmets to help alert drivers at night, but one problem is that add-ons can interfere with how a helmet is designed to protect a rider. The biggest culprit is actually the wearable action camera that riders have increasingly been mounting to helmets. This provides a blunt object that can damage the helmet and even cause an increased chance of neck injury.

"Anything that goes on the outside of the helmet should flip off immediately," said Swart. "Many of the action cameras that mount to the helmets are held on with Velcro, and these don't tend to get knocked off so easily. The outside of the helmet needs to be round to help deflect some energy."

However, not all the add-on products are so intrusive, and one new technology that is being shown at this week's Interbike trade show in Las Vegas could actually work in conjunction with a helmet to save a rider's life following a catastrophic crash.

The ICEdot sensor doesn't fundamentally change a helmet's shape or protection characteristics. What it does do is call for help should the wearer be unable to do so.

"It's a small device that will attach to the helmet," said ICEdot CEO, Chris Zenthoefer. "It won't alter the helmet's structure or fit in any way."

Call for Help

The ICEdot sensor can work with a bicycle rider's smartphone, where an app can detect motion, changes in forces and notably impacts. In the case of a traumatic crash, it can call for help and even send GPS coordinates. As many cyclists are now using smartphones as cycling computers to track speed, distance, heart rate and calories, this takes it a step further as a "Life-Line" type of product.

In this way it could also encourage riders to bring a phone. While some riders may want to "get away from everything," the ability to call for help shouldn't one of them, noted Zenthoefer.

The ICEdot also could encourage riders to wear a helmet, but Zenthoefer is less convinced of that and pointed out that the sensor and app do not serve as a reactive device for a crash.

"I think it is proactive," Zenthoefer told TechNewsWorld. "A helmet can only go so far to protect your head but often it's not just the [straight-line] impact, but the angle of rotation that is more dangerous when you fall ... . We're measuring both and helping people be more aware of what has happened to them in a crash and getting help to them in case it is needed. We're taking the idea of the helmet one step further -- protection plus a call for help."

Because this is a device that attaches to a helmet, it could have potential for many other fitness activities.

"We're going after bikes first because that's what we do and know," said Zenthoefer. "However, it makes a lot of sense for snow sports, rock climbing, kayaking, motorcycles -- anyone that wears a helmet."

Wind in the Hair

The ICEdot isn't the only technology that can respond and react to a crash. Hövding has created what it bills "the Invisible Helmet." While it may be more apt to call it "the inflatable helmet," it works by being there only when a rider actually needs it.

Invisible Helmet
Invisible Helmet

When it's not deployed, the fashion-centric "helmet" is actually worn around the neck as a collar. Obviously this isn't aimed at serious mountain bikers or road cyclists but at commuters who want the wind in their hair rather than a brain bucket on their head.

"Our aim has always been to develop a helmet that would be so attractive that more cyclists would start protecting their heads in traffic," said Terese Alstin, founder of Hövding.

"The project started out with an extensive research with the purpose to understand why so few people wear bicycle helmets. When we asked people what they'd ideally like the bicycle helmet of tomorrow to look like, they wished for something discrete that could match their different outfits, something that wouldn't ruin the hair -- and one person even said he wished for an invisible bicycle helmet," Alstin told TechNewsWorld.

"Hövding is the result of all the feedback from our research," she continued. "We took into consideration even the most challenging requests from the cyclists, which is why I'm convinced that this product will encourage people who normally wouldn't wear a helmet to start protecting their heads on the roads."

The helmet works by reacting to the motion of a rider and inflates when it detects sudden movement that is registered as a fall or crash. But is that enough?

"What happens when you hit a tree limb or hit a bus mirror with your forehead?" asked Swart. "It is great new technology, and I like the idea that someone is working on the problem -- but there are a million questions with this one and no answers."

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing.

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