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Interview: Chris Smith from Lazer Sport: Part 1

Posted by bikezilla on September 25, 2011


Part 1, Part 2, Afterword

An Interview with Chris Smith from Lazer Sport, the bicycle helmet company.

Not that long ago on Twitter I came across @Helmeteer_Chris, who is the PR guy for Lazer Sport, and I had some questions for him. That discussion grew into a full interview, which follows in two parts.

Primary sources of information for this interview:

BHSI

Questions about standards?

Helmet foam materials

Bikezilla:

I’m just curious, when one of your competitors comes out with a new helmet, do you guys go out and buy a dozen, just to see what the other guys might do better?
Chris Smith:

“I can tell you for a fact that we do purchase and test competitor’s helmets. We’re not crashing them! But, we do, and I’m sure other manufacturers do, test helmets to assure that they’re meeting testing standards. But we’re also testing the actual weight vs. advertised weight, we’re testing airflow, we’re testing comfort.

So, yeah, when I go over to Belgium once or twice a year to meet with the guys in the office and when we go for rides, we’re not all wearing Lazer helmets.

 I mean, that’s the only way you know what competitors are doing, as opposed to just getting anecdotal evidence. You gotta spend a significant amount of time riding those helmets in order to really understand what’s going on. And I’m sure similar people at similar levels at our competitors are doing the exact same thing.”

Bz:

Have you ever tried out one of those helmets and come away liking it better than yours? I won’t ask for a brand name.
CS:

“Ahhhhh, I’ve tested other helmets where I’ve appreciated a specific feature, ‘Oh, God, this helmet is so light, or the venting on this particular helmet I really feel an amazing amount of air going over my head.’

 But, I can tell you that at the end of the day there’s always been some kind of knock that would keep me from using a competitor’s helmet versus Lazer.”

Bz:

Not just because you’re paid to say it, you actually do prefer Lazer helmets.
CS:

“I’ve been working for Lazer for three years and I’ve been riding with Lazer helmets for seven years. I started using Lazer helmets as soon as they started being sold in the United States.”

Bz:

Is it true that helmets are intentionally made to just meet or to barely exceed CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) or other standards? Meaning they intentionally do not exceed the standard by much?

Do Lazer Helmets exceed legal testing guidelines? If so, how?
CS:

“I can speak on behalf of Lazer specifically.

There is a minimum testing standard, specifically for CPSC for the United States, but also the CE for the testing standard for Europe and the ASI testing standard for Australia. We exceed that standard by a factor of two.

Helmets we design and manufacture – and I believe this is very common in the bicycle industry – are meeting and exceeding the testing standards by a factor of two. I believe that’s very common if not the norm in the bicycle helmet industry.”

Bz:

Are the CE and ASI standards similar to the U.S. Standard?
CS:

“The CE standard is less stringent than the CPSC standard. The ASI standard is more stringent than the CPSC standard.”

Bz:

So you exceed the most stringent [standard] by a factor of two?
CS:

“Well, we are unique in the bicycle industry, I believe, in that we actually manufacture helmets specifically for the testing standard used in each market.

We exceed each specific market by a factor of two.

What I’m trying to say is, if you look at a particular model helmet, we may make that model helmet different ways depending upon the market that helmet is going to be sold in.

And what that will yield is a helmet that is more competitive in its category in that market.

Like in the CE market, the European market, the Genesis helmet is slightly lighter weight than it is in the CPSC market and the ASI market. And that’s just because in order to meet our internal testing standards and the CE testing standards we can get away with using less material in the European version of that helmet and make it more competitive at its price point and its segment in the market.”

Bz:

It’s not a matter of making it maximally safe, it’s a matter of making it competitive.
CS:

“Yeah. Fundamentally, what you need to understand about helmets is, there’s lots of different helmets for lots of different types of cycling and different price points that consumers are willing to pay for a helmet. In order for a manufacturer to be successful in business, they need to deliver a product that the consumer wants to buy.

So, for a helmet that has a particular weight target it has to cost within a certain range or price. Or, a helmet within a certain price range, it has to have a certain maximum weight for it to be considered a legitimate contender in the marketplace.

So, the European helmets are a little bit more competitive on weight vs. price, because the testing standard is not as stringent.”

Bz:

What about industry standards? Has the helmet industry come up with its own set of testing standards? Or does each manufacturer come up with his own, which may or may not exceed the legal?
CS:

“No. There’s no collaboration in the bicycle industry between manufacturers on helmet testing standards.

It’s a third entity, in the case of the United States it’s the CPSC that sets the testing standard that the manufacturers follow. But there’s no cooperation or work within the industry to develop a new standard, or to develop a standard other than what is currently accepted, which is the CPSC standard in the United States.”

Bz:

Is there much fluctuation, manufacturer to manufacturer, on exceeding the legal standard? Or does everyone exceed it by 2X?
CS:

“I can’t speak for other manufacturers. I don’t know.

I know that a smart company will look to exceed that standard, for two reasons. Number one, to assure that the helmet is providing the maximum amount of safety that it can within that category of helmets. Whether you’re talking about a $300 helmet or whether you’re talking about a $30 helmet, you want it to be the safest helmet you can manufacture at that price point, using whatever technology you’re using and whatever benchmark maximum weight you’re trying to hit, or whatever. You want to deliver the safest helmet you can at that price point, to be competitive in the market.

But you’ve also go to take into account manufacturing process, and that will fluctuate.

If you’re using a mold to build the helmet foam, that mold is gonna start to wear over time. There might be factors in manufacturing that will affect how that single helmet will test out.

So, if you are designing a helmet and testing it out, preproduction samples, testing those out that they exceed the testing standard by, like I said, a factor of two. Because if you’re beating it by a factor of two and you lose one or two points because the mold is starting to wear out, or whatever reason, you can be sure you’re still far exceeding the testing standard.

Whereas, just hypothetically, if the drop test says, we don’t want to see forces any higher than X, and you’re hitting at X + .01, you basically don’t have any margin for error during the manufacturing process [when not aiming to intentionally exceed the minimum standard – Bz].

So, in the case of Lazer, and I believe that this is common in the helmet manufacturing industry, exceeding that standard by a certain factor, and I think two is pretty common, assures the manufacturer that they’re delivering a safe helmet and they’re accounting for any kind of issues during manufacturing that may knock a point or two off of the result during that test.”

Bz:

When should a helmet be replaced?
CS:

“You talk about helmet manufacturers getting together and coming up with a testing standard. What I wish is that manufacturers would come up with a consistent message regarding helmet replacement. Either an amount of time, you know, you’ve had this helmet for two years you should really think about replacing it, and coming out with some hard data that says, okay, you leave this foam exposed to UV light for such and such a time the foam degrades and offers less protection, the plastic degrades and is more likely to crack or shatter or whatever.

I mean, every time you have it outside you’re exposing it to UV light regardless of whether it’s in direct sunlight or the clouds or whatever. And ozone can cause plastic and foam to deteriorate. It happens.

Obviously, there’s sales and marketing. The more people replace their helmets the more helmets we’re going to sell. But, I see people riding all the time with unbelievably old helmets. From the 1980s, you know, the huge Bell V – 1 Pro. Those, you know, look bomb proof, but realistically have been around for so long that the foam is basically just an extension of the plastic on the outside of the helmet. In case of an impact the energy will go right into your skull.

Without testing, I don’t want to say that you’d be better off with no helmet at all, but…”

Bz:

What happens to foam when it gets old?
CS:

“It’s more brittle.”

Bz:

It’s ability to give in an impact is gone?
CS:

“Basically what’s happening is the cells in the foam close up. The amount of air inside the foam is being reduced. As the air in the foam is reduced, the foam is hardening up and the foam is then less able to absorb energy because it’s the air pockets within the foam that are actually absorbing that energy and compressing.”

Bz:

At about what period of time does that occur? Or is it so much that you really should replace your helmet? Two years? Five years? Ten years?
CS:

“I tell people that at a minimum they should be looking at a new helmet every three years. And that’s not just for deterioration of the foam. Because the foam would probably last longer than that. But, the more you use a helmet, the more it gets banged up. If you travel with the helmet, the helmet going to get knocked around. If you have in a suitcase or luggage, unless you take a lot of extraordinary care in order to protect the foam in the helmet, every time you move it around the foam gets dinged, the foam is compressing and compressed foam does not offer protection for the rider’s head. So, especially if you’re using it regularly, I think a new helmet every three years is not unrealistic.

Again, I’m not a scientist or an engineer, so I haven’t seen any empirical evidence.”

Bz:

What’s the difference between a $25 helmet from Walmart or Target or some other big discount store and a $150 helmet? Because, just to look at them they all seem about the same; styrofoam core, plastic shell.
CS:

“Weight, ventilation, airflow, dual-density foam, additional reinforcement, better retention systems for more secure fit/comfort.

Glue-on shell vs. an in-mold manufactured helmet.

A glue-on shell is basically, you mold the foam, then you have the shell that you glue on to the outer surface and you reinforce that with a piece of tape that goes around the shell.

That’s the original manufacturing process, when companies started to get into helmet design.

Then they switch to what’s called an “in-mold” manufacturing process, where you actually have the outer plastic shell, which you put into the mold and then you inject foam and it’s kind of all built as one piece.

Then, beyond that, you can have multiple-piece manufacturing process where you have the shell, you have one part of the foam that is injected at one point, you have another part of the foam that’s injected at another point, you can have multiple pieces of foam that are connected into the helmet during the manufacturing process. That allows us to piece objects inside the foam in order to increase the durability of the helmet in the event of an impact.

It also allows you to use multi-density foam. So if you want to lighten up the overall weight of the helmet, you can research areas of the helmet that are less critical for the protection of the rider’s head and you can use a lighter weight foam in that area in order to reduce the overall weight of the helmet.

But, basically, as you go up in price, you’re using a more sophisticated manufacturing process and trying to achieve the same ultimate testing result, using less materials.

You’re also trying to improve the performance of the helmet at the same time. You’re increasing the size of the vents, you’re putting air channels into the interior of the helmet to draw more air through the helmet, making it more comfortable. All of that stuff goes back to that sophisticated manufacturing process and very easily drives up the overall manufacturing cost of the individual helmet.

Also, the sophistication of the retention system. That has to do with how securely the helmet fits on the rider’s head. It also has to do with how comfortably the helmet fits on the rider’s head.

In a very simple retention system, maybe a recreational rider who isn’t going to be spending a long time on a bike, maybe doesn’t need a helmet that is going to be comfortable after seven or eight or nine hours on the bike. So they can get away with something a little less sophisticated. Whereas somebody who is a granfondo rider or a racer, doing a lot of training, they’re wearing their helmet for an extended amount of time. So they want something that is very comfortable for a long period of time, is very easy to adjust and maybe had multiple pieces that are involved in order to build that retention system.

The development of that retention system, building the helmet around that retention system and the multiple parts that go into it can also drive up the manufacturing cost. The straps themselves, you can use lighter weight strap materials in order to increase the comfort of the helmet, you can use a more sophisticated buckle system in order to lighten up the weight of the helmet. Or, in the case of our magnetic system, just to make it easier for the two pieces to connect. There’s a manufacturing expense to doing that as well.”

Bz:

You mention the two different types of manufacturing, the two-part helmet with a glued on shell, and the one part helmet with the foam poured into the shell. At the high or low end of either, is one type inherently safer than the other?

CS:

“No. No. With current testing standards is one safer than the other? No. Because, they are both able to meet the testing standard and protect the rider’s head in the event of an impact.

I, personally, would have no hesitancy going out and riding with a $25 or $30 helmet. It just would not be as light weight, it wouldn’t offer the amount of airflow through the helmet, it may not be as comfortable, and it certainly wouldn’t look the way that I would want a helmet to look.

But as far as ultimate safety, it’s gonna do the same job as a $300 helmet is gonna do.

It’s just that the more expensive helmet is going to offer some additional features for the rider that somebody who’s going out and riding for 20 to 30 minutes is not going to… they don’t need, they’re not going to appreciate it, they’re not going to want to spend the money on it.”

Bz:

In a multi-density foam helmet, what area or areas will normally contain the lighter-weight foam? How is that determined?
CS:

“We make a determination regarding the areas of the helmet that are less critical for the protection of the head or the integrity of the helmet in the event of an impact, and those are the areas of the helmet that we can replace with the lighter weight foam. The helmet is then tested internally to assure that it passes testing within our margins. If it does not then we change the ratio between standard and lighter-weight foam and retest.”

Bz:

Pat McQuaid recently complained that the frames for $4,000 bikes are made in China at a cost of less than $40.

Manufacturers say he’s off the mark by as much as a factor of 10, but none of them are showing the invoices to prove that.

What is the actual cost of manufacturing a $25 helmet? A $150 helmet?
CS:

“Hmmm, I don’t know.

I can tell you that looking at pure manufacturing costs you’re missing a portion, and a significant portion, of the expense of bringing a product to market. Research, development, engineering, prototyping, pre-production prototyping, testing. There’s a lot more that goes into manufacturing a product, regardless of what a product is, than just the raw materials and time spent in manufacturing it.”

Bz:

Are those costs proportionally multiplied when you’re manufacturing a higher-end helmet?
CS:

“Yeah! You have the in-mold process, where you’re molding the helmet out of different pieces of foam and you’re introducing different material as you’re manufacturing it.

Other than the machines and the shell and the foam in the helmet, there’s a lot of hand labor that does into manufacturing these helmets. It’s actually shocking.

We’re talking about threading the straps. You think about the complexity of these helmet straps, they’re all hand threaded. The more sophistication retention mechanism the more time has to be spent threading the helmet strap through that retention system. The more sophisticated the buckle, there’s got to be a procedure.

Our retention system, again, is pretty sophisticated and it has to be fed through the the exterior of the helmet, the interior of the helmet, during the molding process.

So, yeah, I think for other manufacturing factors… our more expensive helmets require, not a significanct amount of raw materials, in a lot of cases it’s actually less raw materials. But the manufacturing process is more sophisticated and there’s a lot more hand laboring put into the manufacturing.”

Bz:

What percentage of the overall manufacturing cost does R&D make up in a $25 helmet? A $300 helmet?

CS:

Impossible to say because these costs are highest at the first helmet sold and then are amortized over the life of the helmet model. The longer a helmet model stays in our product line or the more successful the helmet is in regard to sales the lower the cost of R&D makes up.”

Bz:

I’ve noticed that lower-end helmets often don’t even come in packages. They’re just hung on a peg.

CS:

“Yeah! In Europe they’re not even hung on a shelf. They’re thrown into a big plastic bin. Just loose helmets thrown into a bin. Consumers just come in, they throw one on their head, ‘Yep, that fits. I’m ready to go.’”

Bz:

If you just pick up a helmet and look at it, it would seem to be made of about the same material as a cheap picnic cooler, except for the density of the foam.

How is helmet foam different from picnic cooler foam?
CS:

That is a good question and one that I don’t have the answer to. Not being a helmet engineer and not being familiar with the different types of expanded styrene foams that are used it would be pure speculation on my part.

I believe the size of the individual cells, the air cells in the foam, the air cells on an EPS cooler may be very large and larger air cells do not offer the same kind of resistance to impact or the durability in a helmet that you’re going to be wearing on a daily basis.

When you talk about a helmet that uses dual-density foam, as I mentioned earlier, you’re IDing parts of the helmet that are less critical for the protection of the rider’s head and you’re using a lighter-weight foam, basically I think what you’re doing is using a foam that has a higher air quantity. The cells in that foam are bigger and they’re trapping more air and that lightens up the overall weight of the foam.

But, at the end of the day I believe, again not being an engineer and not knowing all the details about it, EPS (expanded polystyrene) is EPS.”

NOTE: Chris emailed the official answer the next day (along with a couple others). – Bz
CS:

“The chemical composition of the foam is the same [as in styrofoam coolers], but the quality of the foam in regard to the size/shape/consistency of the foam bubbles at the time of expansion during production is higher in the foam used in helmets.”

Bz:

Of the materials, EPS, SXP, EPP and SEPP, which best protects in case of impact? Which prevents the most energy from reaching the head and brain?
CS:

“I have not been able to get information from our engineers regarding these various types of foam. My limited understanding on this is that SXP foam is a version of EPS foam and is required for use in CPSC-certified helmets and also mandated for use in the state of California. I believe that this is the industry standard for use.”

Bz:

Is one of these materials destined to be the “future” of cycling helmets? Or will EPS remain the standard for the foreseeable future? If it will, will you explain why? Could you (or one of your engineers, perhaps) give me a list of the advantages and disadvantages, the benefits and drawbacks for each material?

[This answer was emailed after the interview. – Bz]
CS:

“Whatever version of EPS foam (SXP) is being used now is going to be the standard in the foreseeable future as this raw material is readily available and currently most economical to use in manufacturing. Should another foam be determined to offer greater protection and the industry or regulative agencies determine that it should be used at that time, a switch will be made. I don’t see this happening in the foreseeable future, however. Keep in mind that EPS foam is not just used in the bicycle industry but other sports industries that require the use of a helmet, as well as the immense motorcycle helmet industry. I would expect the motorcycle helmet market will drive any significant changes to materials used in the bicycle helmet industry.”

Bz:

Manufacturers often have to choose a foam density that will pass impact tests based on the number and size of vents. A helmet with larger vents or more vents, will have thinner vent walls/ribs so it will require a foam that is more dense.

This means that you have a smaller harder surface area smashing into your skull in a crash.

So even though two helmets may have identical numbers in an impact test, are helmets with larger or more vents actually less safe in crashes?
CS:

“Ummmmmmmm… that is a question that is impossible for me to answer without any kind of testing data to prove it one way or the other.

I mean, you can speculate all you want on that theory. Unless you’re going to get helmets and you’re going to go out and going to set up a testing standard, and actually get empirical data that says something one way or the other, then it’s basically just speculation at this point. That’s not something that I’d be able to comment on.

Every manufacturer is in the same boat. What manufacturers are facing is the demand of the market. I may have said to you, I’ve said to other people, you can make the safest helmet in the world. You can manufacture a hundred thousand of them and promptly go out of business because nobody is going to buy them.

People want helmets that, depending on the price point and the level of consumer you’re talking about these are going to be different priorities, but people want a helmet that looks stylish, they want a helmet that is lightweight and comfortable to wear, and they want a helmet that’s going to offer some airflow.

Again, you can make the safest helmet in the world with no air vents, a huge amount of foam, but nobody is going to wear it. Or very, very few people are going to wear it. Certainly not enough to keep your company viable and in business.

You’ve got to match your product to the demands of the consumers and match your product to what competitors are offering. And if you can offer A, B and C features that kind of exceed what the competitors are doing at that price point, and offer increased safety or better performance or whatever, that’s where you can distinguish yourself in the market.

But ultimately, regrettably, if safety is the only goal in helmet manufacturing, then you’re not going to survive as a company. As a consumer, yeah, it can offer benefit, but that’s just not what the marketplace is looking for.”

Bz:

Narrower vent walls also mean more squared edges, which are inherently worse in crashes than rounded edges. They’re more likely to stick or to get snagged and jerk helmet off your head leaving you with no protection, or to jerk your head around violently and increase rotational injuries.

This is also true of the “aero” tail on many helmets.

It seems that things done specifically to increase the value of a helmet too often create a less safe product, but are allowed in the name of higher marketability and profit.
CS:

“What I would say about that is… I have not seen, I mean, I’ve seen anecdotal evidence and people’s comments about this. But, I have not seen any testing data that says that a helmet with edges on it of some kind, or aero helmets, are inherently less safe than a perfectly round helmet or something that exactly matches the curvature of your head.

It may very well be the case. But, again, I’ve seen no data that proves that, and I’m not aware of anybody who’s actually testing that.

Again, I’m not saying that it cannot very well be the case, but what I will say is that based on the overwhelming number of photographs and post-crash stories that I get from our customers – and I can only assume that other manufacturers get them from their customers – this phenomenon of an edge of a helmet or the sharp corner of a helmet or the aero tail of a time trial helmet specifically causing an injury to the rider, I haven’t seen a case of it.

So, what we could be talking about is a very real scenario, but one that is so unlikely in a real-world situation, that it makes it impractical to take into account when designing a helmet.

No helmet can protect a rider in every situation, due to speed, due to the angle of the impact, objects in the road, objects off the side of the road, the surface that the rider is riding on. There are too many variables to take into account to say that this helmet is going to protect the rider the best in every situation.

So, to look at a particular feature of a helmet, regardless of how commonly it’s used and say, ‘this is something that I’m concerned about,’ the chance of that being a problem in a real world situation – while existing – could be so remote that it’s not a concern that a manufacturer can or should consider.

Bz:

Could you address the issue of visors shattering, or the edges slicing riders’ faces, or snagging during a collision and violently jerking the riders’ head around and increasing rotational damage?
CS:

“Again, hypothetical or anecdotal situations are always going to happen. I don’t know. You’ve got a segment of the market that wants a feature. And whether they are aware of the risks of that feature or not, in the case of a visor they want a visor on their helmet.

Obviously, the visors from Lazer, the visors from other manufacturers, are designed to withstand impact without shattering. I know that I’ve got a number of visors from our Oasis helmet, the all-mountain helmet I was telling you about, I can twist that visor 180 degrees and it’s not going to break, it’s not going to shatter. It may deform, but it’s not going to shatter. It’s not that fragile.

If you leave it out in the sun for five years and the UV rays cause the plastic to deteriorate, at that point it might shatter.”

Bz:

Does Lazer, or any manufacturer that you’re aware of, make a helmet that’s… maximally safe? Just, okay, here’s the absolute safest helmet you can buy. It may be ugly. It may not be stylish, but if this is what you want, here it is. Is that helmet out there?

CS:

“Hmmmm. I can tell you on behalf of Lazer that we do not make a helmet that we specifically market like that. I can’t say that Lazer does not make that helmet, because we’re not testing the helmets to any kind of standard that says ‘this is the safest helmet.’ I don’t know what that test would look like.

I can tell you personally that I think the current drop tests are not satisfactory. But, I’m not an engineer, I would not be comfortable being responsible to design what I thought would be the ultimate helmet testing standard.

So, again, without some kind of benchmark to say, ‘Okay, this is the test that will determine what the safest bicycle helmet in the world is, I couldn’t identify which of our helmets, or any other manufacturer’s helmet, might meet that criteria.

Without discounting the fact that this helmet may not already exist and that Lazer may be making that helmet, without some kind of way to verify that in a reliable and clean testing situation, that’s not something I’d be able to determine.”

Bz:

You’ve told me that Lazer Sport manufactures its helmets in China, but some companies manufacture in Europe. Is there a difference in the quality of helmets manufactured in one place vs. the other?
CS:

“My feeling is that the quality of manufacturing between China and Europe is about the same but the production costs in Europe are higher. So you can get the same quality helmet from a Chinese supplier for a more economical price. The quality of products coming from China has improved dramatically in the last ten years and Lazer has a very close relationship with our production facility which allows us to develop and incorporate new concepts and innovation into our helmets very quickly after design.”

Bz:

You’ve mentioned before that you’re not happy with the current testing standard. You mentioned that you aren’t happy with the drop test because it doesn’t match real world situations.

Does Lazer, or anyone, test more “real world?” Different angles? Skid? Just whatever might make the standard better?
CS:

“When we design a helmet we’re designing it for the testing standard of that market [U.S., Australia, Europe – Bz]. We’re partnering with another organization which is using a different testing procedure. I might have alluded to that in the article that I referenced [on his own blog, here – Bz]. The organization is called MIPS. We are, I know that POC and maybe one other company which I’m not sure of [also are]. We are partnering with MIPS using a different testing procedure, in order to address what I feel are more real world conditions.”

Bz:

MIPS is not just a system, they’ve also modified the testing standard?
CS:

“They’ve developed their own testing standard. It’s not a stationary helmet with an object coming into it, it’s not a stationary object with a helmet coming into it. They’re doing a more dynamic test to the helmet.”

Bz:

Is a helmet designed for one function, maybe mountain bike (MTB) riding, less safe if used for maybe road riding than a helmet made specifically for road riding?
CS:

“Well, it depends.

One example is our high end Helium helmet, which we consider a road helmet, vs. our Oasiz MTB helmet or all-mountain helmet.

The Helium helmet, it’s the pinnacle of our line. It’s made using our most sophisticated manufacturing technology in order to make it as lightweight as possible.

Whereas the Oasiz helmet, it uses the same manufacturing process, but it’s a more significant helmet in that it’s meatier and there’s more material that comes down the back of the rider’s head. Because again, the demands of the market. Riders who are doing this all-mountain type of riding, they’re looking for a helmet that offers more protection down the back of the rider’s head and has more material that the helmet is built around.”

Bz:

So there are features that make a helmet an MTB helmet or a road helmet?
CS:

“There are features that we are offering in order to address the needs of the MTB market, or the road bike market.

But, what I’ll tell you is, like in the case of the Luna womens professional MTB team, we equip them all with the Helium helmet, because they want the super-light helmet

So, someone who’s looking for a type of helmet, whether or not at the end of the day it’s for the type of riding they’re doing, the crash that they actually might find themselves involved in, whether or not the Oasiz helmet is going to offer them more protection, there’s too many variables to take into account. But in the case of the all-mountain segment, A, B and C features are what those riders are looking for, so we incorporate those features into the helmet.”

Bz:

Ok, it’s based on rider preferences within a category. What MTB riders want in that line, what road riders want in that line.

How do you gather the information about what various types of riders want in which line or type of helmets?
CS:

“We look at what – if it’s a new segment for us to get into – we look at what consumers are already buying in that segment, as far as the features that they’re looking for. Then we look at, okay, are there ways that we can improve upon those features, is there a way that we can offer the same protection with less material, to lighten up the overall weight of the helmet? Can we integrate our features and technologies that we use on our high-end helmets at a lower-price helmet and set our product apart from what the competition is doing, by a better fit or better airflow, better chin buckle, better visor.”

Bz:

Do you take feedback from the people and teams that you sponsor?
CS:

“Absolutely.”

Bz:

I remember seeing a crash test comparison of a Smart car and a Toyota Corolla, at 70 mph into giant concrete blocks. The cages of both cars held up amazingly well.

But after showing us that, the host mentioned that it doesn’t matter how well the cage protects the body, the person inside the car in a 70-mph crash is still very likely to die from organ damage due to the forces involved in rapid deceleration.

Translating that to helmet design, it seems obvious that there’s only so much protection a helmet can offer. Most of us will never crash at 70 mph, but a combination of forces, especially for racers, could equal that.

What are the limits of helmet protection?

Does that $150 or $300 helmet protect significantly better than the $25 helmet?

I know there’s no standard scenario, so no standard maximum safe speed for helmet effectiveness, but can you give a range?

What is the upper limit of speed for impacts from the side? From the front? From the top? From the rear?
CS:

“No. No. At the end of the day, no. There are too many variables to take into account to even to begin to guess at that.

Again, without any empirical data or any kind of reliable testing it would be irresponsible for anyone to make that kind of recommendation.

I can tell you that in a $25 helmet vs. a $300 helmet, there may some features built into that $300 helmet that might help improve the odds that the rider will escape from a crash unscathed, for instance the RBS, the Rigidity Brace System that we build into our higher-end helmets, and again that’s another component of that higher manufacturing technology. We can introduce more materials into the helmet when we’re building these multiple pieces. But, what the RBS is, it’s a skeleton that’s inside of the foam and in the event of an impact the skeleton helps keep the foam together and around the rider’s head. So if there are additional lower-speed impacts, the rider still has foam around their head and is offered that additional protection.

So, in our higher-end helmets we have that RBS that may offer that protection.

But again, there’s too many variables. Is the rider going to crash and land directly on their head? Are they going to crash and land on another body part that can cause rapid deceleration so that the rider’s head is hitting at a much lower speed? Is there an object in the road or off the side of the road that the rider’s head could hit?

Again, it’s impossible and in my opinion it would be irresponsible without a standard test, to say that ‘you can wear our helmet at speeds up to 50 mph and be assured that in the event of a crash you’re not going to have a problem.’

Because, honestly, you look at Natasha Richardson, the actress who was skiing on a bunny hill. She was standing still and fell over and had a traumatic brain injury and within… six hours? Eight hours? She was dead.

You can trip and land on the floor at almost zero miles an hour and suffer a significant brain injury that can cause death.

Bicycle helmets can help. They can offer considerable help depending upon the circumstances of the crash. But, at the end of the day there’s just too many variables to take into account to say that this helmet will offer protection up to speeds up to this amount.”

Bz:

As in the example they gave with that 70-mph car crash, where it didn’t matter how well the car cage protected the body, the organs inside could not survive, is there a point or a speed where it doesn’t matter how well the helmet protects the skull, the brain inside cannot survive?

At 30 mph? 50 mph? I don’t know…


CS:

“I don’t know either. Because I’m not aware of any test that has defined that. Because ultimately what you’re talking about is the speed… it’s not the speed that your head hits the object, it’s the speed at which your brain hits the inside of the skull. Because that’s where the brain injury happens.

Your head can hit an object at whatever speed. But because your brain is not fixed to the inside of your head, there’s a delayed reaction between when your head hits the ground and when your brain decelerates by smashing into the skull.

You’re talking about survivability? It depends what part of the brain hits the inside of the skull. There’s certain parts of the brain that are more durable than others.”

Bz:

So it’s things like, do you hit directly or is it a glancing blow, is it a front impact, or on the side or back, not just how fast you’re going, that make a big difference?
CS:

“Exactly.

Again, there’s too many variables to take into account. Because of what is happening – not just outside your head, but inside your head – in just fractions of a second, it can make a critical difference whether or not a head impact and injury is survivable or not.

I don’t know what the speed of Wouter Weylandt was in the Giro d’Italia when he crashed. I know that they were descending. From what I saw of that descent it didn’t look to be an extremely high-speed descent. If the speed was over 40 mph [64 kph – Bz] I would have been amazed. But, you hit your head in a particular way, it can be fatal, regardless of what you’ve got on your head.”

The following questions were submitted by @CycleGirl108, a friend on twitter, following several discussions we had concerning Wouter Weylandt’s crash at the Giro and Chris Horner’s and Tom Boonen’s crashes at the Tour. She knew we were doing this interview and has a keen interest in helmet safety and helmet advocacy. She emailed her questions to be posed to Chris Smith during the interview.
CG108:

They’ve used hard styrofoam as the main cushion in helmets for 30 years; why not shift to gel or something with more give?
CS:

“Good question. Why haven’t they?

I’d have to talk to my boss and the engineers.”

OFFICIAL EMAILED ANSWER:

“Two reasons EPS foam is currently being used:

  • It’s currently readily available and mass-produced, so it’s easy for manufacturers to obtain for a reasonable cost while still offering good protection for the rider’s head
  • Gel and similar materials have been tested but the overall helmet weight when used with these materials has yielded unacceptable results.”

CG108:

Is it possible to have a helmet which grips the head directly, and doesn’t need a chin strap?
CS:

“It is possible? Sure.

But that kind of flies in the face the rotational injury phenomenon. You actually need to have some kind of system for the helmet to move independent of the rider’s head.

Maybe you could do it. Maybe you could develop a system that grabs the rider’s head so tightly, but still allows the shell to move independent of that. I don’t know how comfortable that would be.

I think you could do it, but you’d sacrifice everything in the way of helmet comfort to achieve that.”

CG108:

I’ve been told that above a certain speed or impact pressure, the helmet may keep the skull intact, but brains inside will liquefy. True? That is, it will be like shaking a raw egg: Scrambled in the shell. If so, what speed?
CS:

“‘Liquify’ is bit extreme, but it is true. I can’t assign a speed to that. Because it could happen at high speed, it could happen at low speed.

The speed of the rider and the speed of the bike has nothing to do with it. It’s the speed of the head, how and where it impacts whatever surface.

You can come off your bike at 70 mph but you may have decelerated to under 50 by the time your head hits the ground. Who knows, by what part of your body hits first.

But having said that, regardless of speed, yes, you can hit your head hard enough where you brain, because your brain is not fixed to the interior of your skull, you can hit your head hard enough that your brain will impact the inside of your skull and cause intercranial bleeding. That can be fatal, and quickly fatal.”

CG108:

The current standards call for protection when dropped from 2 meters onto an anvil. Isn’t that a lot slower than a typical rider goes? It seems to me that a recreational rider goes about 20 mph, which is quite a bit faster than a dropped helmet, so shouldn’t the standard be made higher?
CS:

“Possibly. But, I can say that in the case of the testing standard, they take into account the fact that another portion of the rider’s body, more often than not, impacts the ground first, which causes rapid deceleration.

It’s very rare that the rider’s head hits first at full speed.

The testing standard was developed to account for, I think, 14 mph. Because that’s what they determined was the average crash speed when the head actually did have impact. So that was, for better or worse, whether you agree with it or not, that was taken into account when they designed the test.”

CG108:

Can helmets be improved to absorb more impact and protect wearers from falls at higher speeds, without making the helmets so cumbersome that bicyclists won’t wear them?
CS:

“Can it be done? Mmmmmmmmm, anything can be done, depending on how much the consumer wants to spend.

If you have enough money to throw at a project, you can do just about anything. But, you’re going to price it out of the competitive market.”

CG108:

I understand that based on skull and brain physiology, it’s hard to protect the brain from sloshing inside the skull during a high-speed impact. Nevertheless, will it someday be possible for a helmet to protect more against concussion?
CS:

“Concussion goes back to that rotational brain injury, which accounts for the overwhelming majority [of head injuries] in cycling and motorcycling. That’s what we’re trying to occomplish with the MIPS system.

One thing I’ll tell you, this is also becoming something that motorcycle helmet companies are taking seriously.

I don’t know if you’re aware, but Lazer started out as a motorcycle helmet manufacturing company.

Just about two years ago, based in Brussels, was a motorcycle and bicycle and air-sport [helmet] manufacturing company.

The managers of the bicycle division bought that division out.

Now, Lazer Helmets, based in Brussels, still makes motorcycle helmets. Lazer Sport, based in Antwerp, is the bicycle division.

So there still is a Lazer motorcycle helmet manufacturing company. And they have addressed this rotational brain injury phenomenon by coming up with a helmet with a feature called ‘super skin.’

Basically what this skin is, it’s like a scalp that’s applied to the outer portion of the helmet. If you think about it, your scalp is designed to prevent rotational brain injury.

So, at walking speeds, you trip and you fall, you hit your head. Your scalp, for just a fraction of a second, milliseconds, your scalp will adhere to whatever your head hits, just for that fraction of a second, and allow your skull to travel in it’s original direction. It’s just that few milliseconds of allowing the skull to continue in its original direction that can dramatically reduce rotational brain injury.

That’s the job of the scalp at a walking and running pace. You get on a 50 mph or 70 mph motorcycle, your scalp is obviously not up to that challenge. So what Lazer motorcycle helmets did, working with another independent group, they developed this ‘super skin’ technology which is basically a scalp that is attached, is bonded, to the outer surface of a motorcycle helmet.

If you grab one of these helmets and press your thumb on it, you can actually move the outer surface of the helmet versus the shell underneath it. It’s accomplishing the same goal. So, at 50, 60, 70 mph if you come off the motorcycle and you hit your head, for that millisecond, that super skin/scalp will adhere to the road and allow the rest of the helmet to continue in the original direction of travel.

Just that millisecond of energy absorbtion tested out to a dramatic reduction in the frequency and chance of rotational brain injury.”

Bz:

Is there any chance that we’ll see that on a bicycle helmet?
CS:

“Well, maybe. We were pursuing that at a time when we were all one company.

The problem is, a motorcycle helmet that has that, you can’t have any air vents in it. It’s got to be one solid scalp surface for it to work.

We were looking at maybe offering a full-face DH [downhill – Bz] helmet without any vents that had that technology. But now that we’re different companies, I can’t speak to us using that technology in bicycle helmets.

With what MIPS is doing, it’s accomplishing the same thing, it’s just coming at it from a different direction. Instead of having something on the exterior of the helmet, we’re working with them to have this system on the interior of the helmet to accomplish the same goal”

CG108:

In discussions with friends, they ask why they should they bother with a helmet, if it won’t protect against concussion. I point out that your head is a really bad place on which to get road rash. Therefore it is equally important to have the helmet be sufficiently strong to protect the head when the rider falls. When Jens Voigt fell on live TV during the 2009 Tour de France, his helmet got mashed and mangled and scraped – but saved his head from receiving that damage. He still had a concussion, but he didn’t leave his brains out on the road, which would have happened if he hadn’t had the helmet on.
CS:

“Yeah, absolutely! Again, time and time again, I get email stories and photographs from people who send me pictures of their smashed up helmet, overjoyed that their helmet did its job of protecting their head. Now, honestly, very few if any of these riders suffered a rotational brain injury. Because, that’s a fairly serious issue and they probably would have mentioned intercranial bleeding and having to go through a procedure fairly quickly that involves removing a part of the skull and allowing the brain to expand and swell into that area.

These are people who just hit their head in a straight line incident and didn’t have a brain injury. But, without that helmet, a skull fracture is serious business. Whether you have a brain injury or not, a fractured skull is a very, very significant injury. Bicycle helmets do a very good job preventing that injury.

If you’re only going to use a safety device because it will protect you against the most catastrophic injury that you can imagine, yeah, you may as well not use any safety device at all. But, if you use a safety device knowing that in a great number of situations this safety device is going to prevent injury, who wants to suffer? Who wants a skull fracture, road rash, skull abrasions, or all the different kinds of injuries that you can possibly get. Even facial injuries, a helmet is not going to protect facial injuries. But just the fact that it keeps your forehead elevated can help reduced facial and vision injuries.

So, there’s all kinds of different ways that a helmet can help, help keep the rider’s head safe, not taking into account the effects of rotational brain injury that make it absolutely worthwhile to wear a bike helmet every time you ride.”

You can also read Part 1 and comment on Cyclismas

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