Your Bike Helmet – the First Line of Defense When Riding

By Kevin Cashman

Before our first child was born, my wife and I spent a lot of time researching which car seat to purchase. We considered which ones were the most user friendly, the most versatile, the most durable, and above all else, the safest. My colleagues will tell you that I have a reputation for being, shall we say, rather frugal. But your child’s car seat is the first line of defense in the event of an automobile accident, and even I didn’t want to save a few dollars at the expense of compromising safety.

These same principles should be applied to bicycle helmets. If your child will be riding with us this summer, please think twice before grabbing the old helmet in your garage and sending them on their way.

We regularly get calls from parents asking when a bicycle helmet should be replaced. Surprisingly, there’s no standard for this. Inside the helmet, you should see a sticker with a manufacture date. As a general rule of thumb, and due to the fact that materials degrade over time, a helmet should DEFINITELY be replaced if it’s eight years or older. Some manufacturers recommend replacing a helmet every five years, while others recommend replacing it every other year, especially if it’s been heavily used and exposed to a lot of perspiration and sun (which can break down plastics and foam more quickly).

In addition to functionality, it’s very important that the helmet fits well and that you inspect it carefully before getting on a bicycle.

Inspection: In a nutshell (which, come to think if it, is a bit like a helmet…), there are four main parts to a helmet: the outer shell, the inner hard foam liner, the buckle and strap, and the rear stabilizer. If the plastic outer shell is cracked, falling off, or discolored from too much exposure to the sun, it needs to be replaced. If the inner hard foam liner is showing signs of cracking or is noticeably compressed in spots, replace it. The helmet’s buckle and straps should be in good working order. If one of the plastic blades that snaps into the female end of the buckle is missing, you should definitely replace the helmet. While one blade will hold the helmet in place while riding, the helmet would almost certainly come off in the event of a crash. And the rear stabilizer (more about this below) is an adjustment mechanism on the back of the helmet. It’s important that it works correctly and can be adjusted to snug the helmet to your head. If your helmet doesn’t have a rear stabilizer (some older helmets or cheaper models don’t have them), you should strongly consider upgrading.

If the helmet your son or daughter owns has any of these issues, time to get a new one!
If the helmet your son or daughter owns has any of these issues, time to get a new one!

Fit: Ensuring that your helmet fits properly not only facilitates safety, but also provides a much more comfortable ride. Start by making sure the helmet itself is snug against the head independent of the straps (we’ll get to those shortly!). Most helmets have padding to provide cushioning between the head and the inner hard foam of the helmet as well as a rear stabilizer. The rear stabilizer allows the rider to tighten or loosen the framework of the helmet so that it is comfortable, but snug enough so that you can bend forward without the helmet falling off. Before snapping your straps, be sure that the helmet is far enough forward that it adequately covers the forehead and would be the first point of contact upon any impact (in general, you want about an inch – no more than two finger-widths – from your eyebrows to the helmet).

Once the helmet itself is properly fitted, it’s time for the straps! The straps provide an additional line of defense in case the helmet is jolted out of place. The Bicycle Coalition of Maine has developed a helpful “Eye-Ear-Mouth” test to provide checkpoints when making strap adjustments:

  • When you look upward, the front rim should be barely visible to your eye
  • The Y of the side straps should meet just below your ear
  • The chin strap should be snug against the chin so that when you open your mouth very wide you feel the helmet pull down a little bit

The final test is to give the helmet a good shake in all directions once it’s buckled and on your head. Did it move a lot? Is more than an inch of forehead exposed? Is it tilted to one side? If so, make any corrective adjustments before jumping on your bike.

Izzy needs some help. The helmet is too big, the chin strap is way too loose. She should definitely NOT be getting on a bike right now. On the bright side, she is wearing a high visibility yellow helmet!
Izzy needs some help. The helmet is too big, and the chin strap is way too loose. She should definitely NOT be getting on a bike right now. On the bright side, she is looking good in that high visibility yellow helmet!
Jack, on the other hand, is ready to ride! The helmet fits well, the chin strap is properly tightened, and it forms a Y below his ears. Good job, Jack!
Jack, on the other hand, is ready to ride! The helmet fits well, the chin strap is properly tightened, and it forms a Y below his ears. Good job, Jack!

MIPS Technology: Bicycle helmet manufacturers are continually trying to improve helmet design to make them safer and more comfortable. The latest development in the world of helmets focuses on reducing rotational forces on the brain that are caused by an angled impact to the head during a crash. That’s a mouthful, but to a layman, it means that bike helmets are being designed to respond/move in the event of a crash so that you’re more protected. The Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) integrates a slip plane into the traditional bike helmet. This additional layer sits snugly on the head while anchored to the foam liner at four points on the crown. Although anchored, the MIPS layer should slide in the event of an accident to help absorb a portion of the impact during a crash and allow the head to slide slightly within the helmet, moving with the force of the impact rather than against it. To better understand how the technology works, you can watch out a short video here.

The MIPS technology has been tested in labs and  is currently in the market showing promise. But its effectiveness in real field cases is still being evaluated.

The time and money spent ensuring you have an effective, well-fit bicycle helmet is truly worthwhile. Bike helmets may be relatively small in size but they’re absolutely crucial to the well-being of our students riding the roads this summer from the Pacific Coast to the Adriatic Sea – and everywhere in between!

Just another day at the Apogee office. We want to keep our heads as safe as possible!
Just another day at the Apogee office. We want to keep our heads as safe as possible!