A brief history of cycling helmets, my quick quick version!

by George Fox June 10, 2014

I’m not referring to specific articles / standards here, more of a general knowledge outline prior to getting more into the facts!


I have always been fond of the phrase “Necessity is the mother of invention” Since around 1817 Baron von Drais’s walking machine has allowed us to travel faster using our own legs as energy, as we start to exceed regular foot speed, the risk of impact becomes larger than what we are naturally able to withstand thus enter the wonderful world of head injury and helmets!


Mid to late 1800’s Pith helmets were replaced with what I think of as the first “considered” helmets, leather tubular construction, usually wool lined/wadded, these “Hairnets” contained minimal padding yet provided cosmetic protection to the rider. I agree it’s good to keep one’s ears intact!


Early 1970’s, competitive and amateur cycling associations had complied enough data to focus attention on minimizing head injuries, as this was a major cause of deaths. Helmets from different market sectors were used as alternatives. Around this time the Snell Foundation also produced the first U.S. bicycle helmet standard, which could only be passed by a light motorcycle helmet.


From the motorcycle helmet industry enter ‘EPS’ (expanded polystyrene) designed to collapse when subjected to high impact (think of thousands of bubbles popping as a means of dispersing the speed/energy of a crash) This quickly proved to be a very popular choice due to very lightweight properties compared to older designs. From this point an enormous amount of focus has been invested to improving the performance of EPS.


This is where it gets tricky, EPS is a great material, resisting high variations in temperature, but until it crushes whilst at “performing” speed (note at this speed the neck/body is at pretty huge risk as well, not to mention the rotational influence applied in a realistic crash environment) it is hard and quite unforgiving. There has been a lot of focus on dual-layering and additional “Comfort” layering, but the core of the protection still remains the same.


Also you only get one hit, If I’m coming off my bike at high speed usually I don’t go bang stop, more of a bang-bang-bang-curb so what about the other bumps?


So why not do something that answers both issues, absorb impact at both low and high speeds and perform the same with multiple impacts? It’s obviously not an easy one to crack (no pun intended!) but surely a more up to date solution given modern risks whether on the road, track or slopes ??


The reality is that cycling does subject users to risk, especially in a commuter atmosphere where cars weighing over 2 tons are competing for road-space. Unless cyclists can create a force field (give us a few years!!) we can only aim to reduce the risk. Maintaining as high a level of performance as possible in order to allow reaction and quick evasive movements when confronted. When I cycle the first thing to do is leave the ego at home, appreciate cars are bigger and make safe decisions, even if it’s my right of way, if it’s bigger than me and obviously not stopping I’d rather keep my brain intact (not much there anyway!)

George Fox
George Fox


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