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Interview: Chris Smith from Lazer Sport: Afterword

Posted by bikezilla on October 3, 2011


Part 1, Part 2, Afterword

I had been contemplating a helmet article for a few months, when, bam, I stumbled onto Chris Smith from Lazer Sport on Twitter.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my entire initial conversation with him was not based on curiosity about helmets as much as it was about whether or not he’d be a good interviewee. Every one of those initial questions were just probes, feeling out his knowledge base and his frankness.

I mean, was he just going to spit out the company line? Or would he say something interesting?

While many of his answers look like the “standard company line,” and some of them certainly are, many are also truthful in a practical sense. He was a lot more open than what I’d expected, but I still had some frustration in the nature of a few responses.

For instance, is it a cop-out when a company builds helmets within the current – and admittedly inadequate – legal testing standards, and falls back on the argument of ‘lack of empirical data’ as a reason for continuing to make helmets without faired or recessed vents; or with more and larger vents even though it means that smaller sections of harder foam crush against a rider’s skull in the event of a crash; with a visor; or to justify the “aero tail” for purely recreational riders when it gives no clear benefit but may in fact increase the chance for a rotational brain injury?

Yes and no.

If there are concerns regarding unfaired vents, unrecesssed vents, aero-tails, the potential of being sliced in the face by a visor, thinner and harder vent ribs actually being less safe despite performing identically during testing of the legal standard, then who is it incumbent upon to study those concerns? Shouldn’t that be helmet manufacturers? Do they get to turn their heads and ignore possibly serious and even dangerous failings in their products merely because the current legal standard fails to make them responsible for that specific aspect?

It’s clear from the interview that the legal standard is widely acknowledged within the industry to be inadequate and unrealistic. Once that is acknowledged, doesn’t it become the responsibility of manufacturers to ensure that their helmets are safe according to real-world standards and not merely an ineffectual and unrealistic legal standard?

Are helmet manufacturers negligent if they fail to at least examine the possibilities that certain features may be inherently unsafe?

But if helmet manufacturers are negligent, then don’t consumers hold some responsibility as well?

Chris said:

“ … if safety is the only goal in helmet manufacturing, then you’re not going to survive as a company.”

And he established several times during our interview that customers are not purchasing helmets based on which one has the best safety features, nor based on which has the fewest unsafe features, and that consumers – when they bother to contact Lazer either directly or through their dealers – aren’t concerned with safety-based features, but instead with cosmetics and things like “will I be able to put my sunglasses in the vents of this helmet?”

It would seem that, at a minimum, consumers are complicit in any negligence on behalf of the helmet industry.

On one hand, manufacturers have a responsibility to make the safest helmet possible, and when they know that the legal testing standard is inadequate and unrealistic, then they have the additional responsibility of developing helmets that protect in real-world situations.

But, if the consumer proves through their buying habits and through an utter lack of expressed interest in those safer helmets, and the manufacturers might in fact run themselves into the ground by producing maximally-safe helmets that will then be purchased by virtually no one, then it seems right and reasonable that, as an act of self-preservation, such helmets are not offered.

If consumers say they want more vents, and they don’t care if the resulting helmet puts smaller sections of harder foam crushing against their skull should they crash, then what?

Is it the manufacturers’ responsibility to save us from ourselves and refuse to make that type of helmets? If one manufacturer refuses, then won’t there be others willing to oblige?

But Lazer’s (and I assume most if not all manufacturers’) practice of looking, as Chris said, “at what consumers are already buying in that segment” seems to blatantly ignore any possible direct input from consumers. There are no studies, no polls, no questionnaires, no focus groups, no email queries via a database of existing customers.

It’s just, “hey, which helmets are our competitors selling the most of and what features do those helmets already have?” That’s not only a very indirect method of gathering data, but it fails to take into account that consumers only have a specific selection of helmets and features available without even wondering if maybe we’d like something different if we were given an opportunity to provide direct feedback. It’s like the industry doesn’t really give a damn about whether or not we want safer helmets, it’s going to offer us what IT thinks we want and if that isn’t good enough, well just too damned bad.

When Chris says, “I would politely take issue with people saying that’s what they’re looking for, because that’s not what they’re looking for, because that’s not what people are buying,” isn’t at least a portion of that due to the fact that we can’t buy those helmets with specific safety features because they aren’t even offered?

You can say that consumers “vote” with their wallets, but they can only “vote” in that manner for products that are already on the market and readily available for purchase.

The claim of not knowing or being able to tell if certain features, like faired vents, recessed vents, rounded vent opening edges, or lack of an aero-tail are truly safer or not because of a lack of empirical data and lack of testing standards, on the one hand is true and practical, but on the other is disingenuous. They’d have that empirical data if they gathered it.

And I apologize if this seems like I’m picking on Chris and Lazer. They just happen to be the sacrificial offering, laid upon the altar on behalf of the industry entire. And as of this writing, POC has not replied with requested feedback.

Let’s take, for instance, the Lazer Rigidity Brace System (RBS). Is there a legal testing standard to determine if this is actually safer? Have there been official studies? Or did someone just say, “Hey, if we manage to keep the foam together in multiple low-speed impacts that might be a good thing and save some riders from suffering brain or skull injuries!?”

I mean, sure it SEEMS like a great idea, and quite logical, but shucks, without that legal testing standard and that empirical data, it’s just pointless to even try to know for certain. Right?

Of course not. So I don’t buy the argument that commonsense can’t be used in evaluating the benefits or dangers of certain features. Like, I don’t buy that you just can’t know without a legal testing standard and an official study supplying official empirical data that narrower vent ribs made of harder foam will cause more damage when smashing into your skull than will wider vent ribs made of softer foam.

X amount of energy reaching your skull over a smaller area, delivered through a harder, less giving surface is a bad thing. I don’t need an army of engineers and scientists to spend millions of dollars and hundreds of hours in a lab to figure that out for me.

As I mentioned above, the people who bother contacting Chris and his industry counterparts at all seem only to be concerned with cosmetics, weight, airflow and convenience features, instead of with any facet of helmet safety. I find that very disappointing.

Because I know from reading what cyclists and fans of cycling say on Twitter and elsewhere to me, that many people are very concerned with helmet safety issues. So, why aren’t any of those people complaining to the people who actually make decisions about what features go into the helmets we buy and use? Why aren’t they calling and writing Chris at Lazer and his counterparts at other helmet manufacturers? If you’re going to expend the breath or energy to complain, then, damn it, complain so as to actually make a difference.

Even more disappointing is this; when Chris addressed the issue of customer contact he said, “…if I did get those questions, it would have to go back to, well, you know, our helmets are designed to meet and exceed the current testing standard.”

In other words, even if you do get off your ass and direct your needs, desires and complaints to the guy or the place where it matters – or should matter – you’ll get brushed off. Why? Because companies like Lazer don’t really give a damn about what you want? They only care about focusing on selling you what they want to sell you? When it comes right down to it, that’s really how it seems to be.

How is it possible to combat that? Well, Lazer and other companies might blow YOU off if you call. But, what if it wasn’t just you? What if it was you and three of your friends all in a week, plus a guy from your club and three of his friends, plus a guy you pass on the trail a couple times per month and three of his friends, plus…? As the numbers mount it becomes more difficult and less practical to ignore them.

Or what if you initiated a petition directed to the heads of several major helmet manufacturers at someplace like Change.org? What if a few thousand people all signed up for something like that and all those names and requests or demands went out to all those helmet manufacturers? What if you did that again every six months until they finally granted you the notice and respect you deserve and began producing better helmets? Helmets with commonsense safety features, like faired and recessed vents, like fewer and smaller vents and thicker vent ribs, like no aero-tail and no visor, like rounded shells. Wouldn’t that be better than having them fall back on, “Well, these other helmets meet the legal testing standard that all of us in the industry readily acknowledge to be inadequate and unrealistic.” Why not upset the paradigm that the consumer will buy whatever these companies make and keep their mouths shut and like it?

Chris says, and I don’t doubt his sincerity, “We are a helmet manufacturing company and the rider’s safety, at the end of the day, is our number one priority.” But, is that true? I mean, in a practical, real world sense, is it true? Because that notion seems to contradict a lot of what we covered in our interview.

I do not mean to say – not in any way or to any extent – that helmet manufacturers intentionally make unsafe helmets. But, I do mean that they are ready and willing to settle for “safe enough” while using the known-to-be-inadequate legal testing standard as a shield and a convenience.

Companies like Lazer and POC are at least attempting to change on some level with the introduction of MIPS to (so far) a very small portion of their overall product lines. But unlike MIPS, those other features that we’ve mentioned – faired vents, etc. – don’t require any special period of compatibility development and they don’t cost an extra $20 per helmet to introduce. They can be done now and at very minimal cost.

Chris and the guys at Lazer, POC and other helmet companies are not evil people. They don’t want you to have unsafe helmets just so they can line their pockets with fat stacks of your cash. But, if they’re going to become motivated to alter the helmet lines to reflect YOUR desire for specific safety features, then YOU will have to express your thoughts directly to them, and you’ll have to encourage your friends to do the same. They’re going to need to know that “if they build it, you will come” (to thoroughly mangle a Field of Dreams quote). They’ll need to know that in giving you helmets with these features, that they won’t be sacrificing their very company to insincere whim and caprice. They need to know that we’re not only asking for helmets with certain features and without others, but that if those helmets are offered to us, we will buy them.

So contact the manufacturer of your favorite helmets and express your opinions. Then get your friends to do the same. And have them get their friends involved. And so on.

Here is some contact information for a few helmet manufacturers for you to begin with:

Lazer:

Chris@lazersport.com

POC:

info@pocsports.com

Giro:

@GiroSportDesign (on Twitter)

Bell:

Bell Contact Form Page   ————————————-

Chris has written a rebuttal article that I hope all of you will read.

In reference to that rebuttal I would like to make two points:

1. The supporting and explanatory links that Chris says are missing, are actually at the very top of Part 1, with more links sprinkled throughout parts 1 and 2.

Chris was, in fact, made aware of this material well in advance of our interview, and again at the start of our conversation.

2. I make an intentional point to say in the Afterword: I do not mean to say – not in any way or to any extent – that helmet manufacturers intentionally make unsafe helmets.” 


The rest of Chris’ rebuttal I love, because it reframes the presentation of helmets, the marketing of helmets, in the context of safety and safety features, which is a habit the industry does not seem to have developed. That’s very curious to me, considering that this is, in fact, an industry based on safety.


My sincerest thanks to Lazer Sport, but especially to Chris. 

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Interview: Chris Smith from Lazer Sport: Part 2

Posted by bikezilla on September 29, 2011


Part 1, Part 2, Afterword

This is Part 2 of my interview with Chris Smith from Lazer Sport, and includes comments from MIPS’ Daniel Lanner.

Bz:

I read some of your material and learned that head injuries caused by crashes are more often due to rotational forces, because veins and nerves in the brain get torn by the twisting and rotation.

Then I watched your MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) video.

Some of Lazer’s helmets for 2012 (P’Nut and Nut’Z) will come with the MIPS option.

It looks to me like MIPS helmets have a liner and in case of impact this liner rotates a little.
CS:

“Yeah, basically, we use a retention system called Rollsys® in our high-end helmets.

And, basically, compared to other manufacturers where all the adjustment is done at the back of the helmet and pulls the front of the helmet against the rider’s head. The Rollss® system is a cable-actuated system that goes all the way around the rider’s head and allows the entire circumference of the retention system to adjust around the rider’s head. It serves as kind of a self-centering mechanism to ensure that the helmet is centered on the rider’s head. It also helps to distribute the load of retention all the way around the rider’s head so they don’t have any kind of hot spots or discomfort. It’s very easy to adjust, there’s a roller on the top of the helmet that controls the cable.

Well, through our collaboration with MIPS, they’ve modified the Rollsys® system so that it’s doing the same thing, where it’s kind of isolating the rider’s head from the shell. The hybrid MIPS/Rollsys® system is attached to one pivot point on the shell.

In the even of an impact that’s severe enough to activate the MIPS system, that one pivot point will break loose, and allow the shell to rotate around the MIPS.”

Bz:

Under normal conditions and prior to any impact, there’s zero rotation in the system, strictly due to MIPS? You can’t just grab your helmet and jiggle it?
CS:

“No, no. You’re not going to be able to pull the helmet/shell off the rider’s head, or pull the shell from the retention system.

There’s an attachment point and in the event of an impact of significance – and that’s engineered, you know it’s got to be a certain amount of energy going into the helmet – this attachment point will break loose and allow the shell to rotate or move, while the MIPS retention system isolates the head from that movement.

The shell of the helmet is rotating instead of the head.

That’s also a great way to identify when a helmet has actually received an impact that is sufficient enough to replace the helmet. Once that MIPS attachment point is broken loose from the shell there’s no way to reattach it. The helmet at that point needs to be replaced.”

Bz:

How much weight does the MIPS liner/system add to a helmet? How does it affect fit and comfort?
CS:

“It doesn’t affect fit and comfort at all, because it’s basically duplicating our current Rollsys® system. Again, we’re talking about children’s helmets, what we’re offering for 2012.

Because of the size of the helmet and the design of the retention system, it doesn’t add any weight and it doesn’t affect the comfort of the helmet at all.”

Bz:

Does it affect airflow?
CS:

“Nope. It’s basically replacing one retention system with another and the MIPS retention system as opposed to being attached the way our traditional Rollsys® system is attached, the MIPS system is attached differently with this one pivot point at the top of the helmet.

But otherwise the size of the belt that goes around the rider’s head, the size of the, we call it the basket, that goes around the back of the rider’s head, it’s basically the same as our current system. It’s just been kind of redesigned and modified by MIPS in order to achieve their goal and pass their test.”

Bz:

MIPS allows the inner portion of the helmet to move within the outer portion. But what about simply designing helmets with safer exteriors? Smoother, more rounded surfaces? Faired and rounded vents and ribs? Fewer vents? No aero-tail? No visor?
CS:

“Well, I would say two things. First off, it kind of goes back to what I was saying about designing the safest helmet in the world, but nobody is going to buy it.

If you go to an Ironman triathlete who is looking for a helmet that offers A, B and C features, and you don’t offer them that helmet, but you say, well I offer you this helmet, it’s a lot safer in case you crash. They say, ‘This helmet from your competitor meets the testing standard, but I also get all this other stuff, why should I buy your helmet?’ ‘Well, our helmet is safer.’ ‘But, I’m not gonna crash.’

At that point you’re trying to sell someone something that they’re not really interested in. That can be applied to whatever segment you’re talking about.

But the other, more specific [point] to this topic is, if you are looking at rotational brain injury and reducing rotational brain injury, then you’re going to design a system to address that specific need. And if you can address that need while still incorporating the features that consumers want, like air vents, or an aerodynamic tail, or whatever else the helmet might have, if you can maintain those features and still address the phenomenon of rotational brain injury, then it’s a win for everybody.

You’ve improved the rider’s ability to get through a catastrophic impact with less chance for rotational brain injury, you’ve improved their ability to survive an impact like that, while you’re still delivering the performance that they are looking for in that helmet.

Now, the downside to that is, it’s more expensive.

Like I said, we’re offering the P’Nut helmet and the Nut’Z helmet in a MIPS version and a non-MIPS version, and at retail the MIPS version is going to be $20 more.

So, the consumer has to make a decision, ‘What’s more important to me – a helmet that has the performance features that I want and is $20 less, or a helmet that has all the performance features that I want and this added safety benefit that’s $20 more?’”

Bz:

Is that going to be standard upgrade price when you take MIPS to other helmets and lines?
CS:

“That hasn’t been decided yet.

The issue with MIPS is that the helmet has to be designed specifically to accept it. The P’Nut helmet and the Nut’Z helmets, we introduced those in 2011 and we worked with MIPS on that helmet in order to come up with a helmet that was specifically designed to accept the MIPS system. Now, we’re introducing that for 2012, because the system is finally dialed, they’re comfortable with their testing and we’re comfortable with integrating into the shell.

So, going forward if we’re going to come out with new helmets that have MIPS, the helmet has to be designed, or redesigned to accept it. We had to make a decision to introduce MIPS at a particular segment of the market. We decided to address the children’s market first, because the two guys that own Lazer over in Belgium, myself, the brand manager here in the United States who has a lot of feedback on product design, we all have families, we all have kids. It’s a huge, huge priority for us.

We all ride, and wear helmets.

So, we kind of needed to update our children’s helmet line. We decided, okay, we’re going to come out with some new children’s helmets, so let’s design the shells to accept this MIPS system and let’s introduce that into our children’s selection first before we bring it out into our other helmets.

But, it’s definitely a feature that we’re going to include in more helmets going forward, because we really believe in it.”

Bz:

I want to keep talking about this, but I need to jump back to the previous question.

The reason that we don’t see what a lot of people might think are common-sense features like faired and rounded vents is, it’s not what consumers are demanding, it’s not what they’re looking for, it’s not going to sell?
CS:

“Yeah. And I would politely take issue with people saying that that’s what they’re looking for, because that’s not what they’re looking for, because that’s not what people are buying.

The market is addressing what the consumers are looking for.”

Bz:

When people contact you they’re not saying, ‘Hey, I wish you’d make a helmet with faired/rounded vents, no aero tail, etc.’
CS:

“Nope. People are telling me they want lighter helmets, they want better air flow, they want a particular style or cosmetic. That is what people are concerned about.

Or, you know the other big issue that we face with our helmets is – you’re probably not going to believe this – our helmets have a reputation for not being sunglasses-friendly. You can’t stick your glasses in the vents. That’s the number one feedback I get on our helmets. People are critical of our helmet design because the vents are not positioned for people to easily stick their sunglasses in their helmets.

Every time I get that comment, while acknowledging that’s what the market is asking for in the high-end helmets, it still blows me away that that is what we’re getting requests for and that is what people are concerned with.”

Bz:

What about after a serious professional crash like Wouter Weylandt’s, or Chris Horner’s crash? Do you suddenly get an influx of people saying, ‘What about these safety features?’
CS:

“During that first week of the Tour, well, not following Weylandt’s crash, really, but during the first week of the Tour and the number of crashes that happened in Brittany, I noticed the buzz on the internet, people asking questions about helmet safety.”

Bz:

But, they didn’t contact Lazer with those concerns?
CS:

“Nope. I received exactly zero questions from consumers.

I can’t say it’s not happening. Maybe people are asking their dealers about it, or asking other people about it. But I fielded no direct questions from consumers or from dealers looking for follow up, or regarding how and when helmets might be improved in order to address their concerns regarding helmet safety.

And, honestly, if I did get those questions, it would have to go back to, well, you know our helmets are designed to meet and exceed the current testing standard. If somebody or an organization decided that they wanted to improve the testing standard and that testing standard was adopted by the government in whatever market that we’re talking about, we would encourage that.

I mean, we are a helmet manufacturing company, and the rider’s safety, at the end of the day, is our number one priority. So, anything that can be done in order to improve the safety performance of the helmet is absolutely something that we want to pursue and take seriously. But, we can’t do it at the expense of the viability of the company.

We still have to meet the needs that consumers are looking for.

Because honestly, the consumers look at the helmet certification, I mean, nobody is selling uncertified helmets anyway, but the consumer goes into a bike shop or they’re shopping on line, and they’re assuming correctly that all the helmets they’re looking at are passing the testing standards. So, the very fact that they’re wearing a helmet at all, they feel, ‘Ok, as far as helmet safety, I’ve done everything I need to do to make sure I’m wearing a safe helmet by just buying a helmet at all. Well now I’m gonna look at weight, I’m gonna look at the air vents, I’m gonna look at how cool this helmet looks on my head. And those are the criteria that I’m going to use to evaluate which helmet to buy.’

You know, what else can the consumer do? There’s no other testing standard out there. There’s no data that anybody could look at. There’s speculation, ‘Well, you know I think a helmet should be this, or it should have this, or it should have that.’

Consumers, there’s really not much that they can do with that information.”

Bz:

Do you think that the more stringent and more realistic MIPS testing standards might eventually be adopted voluntarily industry-wide?
CS:

“I hope so! I hope that, because honestly, [between the] motorcycle industry and bicycle industry, [in] bicycle crash injuries, this rotational brain injury accounts for a real significant portion of brain injury. So, it would be my hope that helmet testing standards, that the current standard is either replaced, or that the ability to test the head’s resistance to rotational injury with a particular helmet is taken into account in helmet testing.”

Bz:

Back to MIPS.

How do you think that will be phased into your overall product line and over what time period? What’s the next place you’ll introduce MIPS?
CS:

“That’s a good question, and that’s going to probably have to be a follow-up question. Because I don’t have the answer to that.

I don’t know what segment we’re going to introduce MIPS into next, whether it’s going to be mountain, full face, road, price-point adult, urban commuter, I don’t know. It could be one or a combination of those different markets, or it could be all of them. I don’t know.

The owners of the company are going to be here in the United States next month for Interbike, and that’s certainly something I can talk to them about and find out what the future plans are for that MIPS system in the rest of our line.”

Bz:

Because each helmet has to be designed individually for or with the MIPS system, it’s not something you can do at the snap of a finger. It takes time to redesign each helmet and each helmet line?
CS:

“Yep. We’re not going to… no, I can’t say that. I can’t say that we’re not going to have MIPS in everyone of our helmets at some point, because we very well may. As a matter of fact, if MIPS or some equivalent becomes part of the testing standard then not only Lazer, but every manufacturer, has some way to address this rotational injury phenomenon.

But, we’re always working on the next-generation helmet that’s going to replace whatever our current model helmet is in whatever helmet segment we’re talking about.

So, I can only assume that as we’re going forward and new helmets are being designed, that MIPS can, and may very well be, incorporated.”

NOTE:

Here’s the official answer:

“While we continue to study the implementation of the MIPS system in our helmet line we are not yet prepared to discuss a timeline for integration into the entire line nor are we able to discuss which helmet might incorporate the MIPS system next.”
Bz:

I have to believe that you’re not the only guy, not just at Lazer but in the industry, who’s not happy with the testing standard. So is the responsible government agency being lobbied to change or upgrade the standard?


CS:

“Not that I’m aware of. I mean, you’re dealing with three entities – Australia/New Zealand (ASI), United States/Canada (CPSE), and every country in Europe (CE). Honestly, I don’t know who is setting the CE testing standard. Well, the CE testing standard is not just bicycle helmets, it’s nearly every helmet sold in Europe. If you look at the back of your motorcycle helmet you’ll see that CE certification. It just means it’s approved for sale in that country.

The bicycle industry, I don’t know if helmet manufacturers have the resources to lobby all the different government entities that may be involved in improving the testing process.”

Bz:

Is there an industry organization?
CS:

“There’s not a helmet manufacturer’s organization. Not that I’m aware of. There’s certainly advocacy groups, in the United States and I can only assume in every country around the world where cycling is a major activity, that advocates on the part of cycling and the cycling industry.

That would be certainly a good project for those advocacy groups to take on, to improve helmet safety, or at least be reviewing current testing standards to be sure that they are matching with real-world circumstances.

I can say on behalf of Lazer, we would have absolutely no objection at all to reviewing or improving testing standards in order to improve helmet safety. We’d have no objection. In fact, we strongly encourage it.”

Bz:

If the industry isn’t going to push for change, how do you think it’s going to come around? Or who’s going to enact that change?
CS:

“That’s a good question. Whether it’s driven at the consumer level, the dealer level, the manufacturer’s level. I don’t know. I think that what, for better or worse, what the likely scenario is, that manufacturer’s like Lazer identify a particular problem, like rotational brain injury, and either take it upon themselves or work with an organization like MIPS, in order to introduce features that address that. Then other manufacturers take that issue seriously and look for features that address that as well. Then at some point all these manufacturers will be addressing a particular problem from so many different directions that somebody finally decides, ‘Well, everybody is trying to solve this problem different ways. Let’s come up with a standard testing procedure and ensure that all helmet manufacturers are meeting that testing standard.’

But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Bz:

When that change finally comes it’ll come from inside the industry, not from the government?
CS:

Absolutely!

I believe, if I know my history, that the automobile industry early on could be an indicator. Because I don’t believe that features like, and maybe I’m wrong, but features like seatbelts and safety glass and airbags and center-mount brake lights, I don’t believe that these innovations were mandated by any testing agency.

I believe it was a concept that was tested, proven to provide a safety benefit, and introduced by manufacturers to gain a competitive advantage that said, ‘Look, our car has this feature and it makes it more safe than another car at that price point and we think you should buy it because of that.’

Then all of a sudden other manufacturers are like, ‘Okay, now we have to have a center-mount brake light because these guys do.’ And then they’re all offering that safety benefit. Then the government may step in and say, ‘Well, everyone is doing this anyway, but they’re all doing it lots of different ways. Now, the center brake light has to be in this position, has to be this width, has to have this kind of illumination power.’ And they codify what everybody is already doing, into a testing standard.

I don’t know if seatbelts, safety glass and airbrakes are the same situation. I could be wrong. It could be a situation where one country mandated airbags and the manufacturers said, ‘Look if we’re building this model car in this country and it’s got an airbag, we may as well just put them in all cars.’

But I think that often you see innovation from manufacturers who are looking to distinguish their products and give them an advantage in the marketplace. Rather than trying to meet the testing standard within their own country.”

Bz:

Is MIPS owned by Lazer? Or will we see this system offered by other manufacturers?
CS:

“Nope. No, Lazer is a Belgian company based in Antwerp. I believe MIPS is a Swedish non-profit research institute, that partners with manufacturers, but is a stand-alone company.”

[Editor’s note: MIPS is indeed a Swedish company, and the MIPS system acronym stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System. It is not clear from their website statement whether they are non-profit or not.]
Bz:

So we’ll see MIPS offered by other manufacturers?
CS:

“We’re already seeing it. I mean, Lazer is not the first company to incorporate it into bicycle helmets.

POC uses a version of MIPS in, I believe, one of their full-face helmets and perhaps one of their bucket helmets.

o, MIPS actually came to market in bicycle helmets from POC.

Lazer, is the first company that is offering a MIPS helmet in an in-mold manufacturing process. We’re also the first company that is offering MIPS in a children’s helmet.”

Bz:

Initially it’s going to cost $20 for a MIPS-upgraded helmet vs. a non-MIPS helmet of the same model. What’s the actual cost of installing MIPS?
CS:

“I don’t know what our installation cost would be. I mean, it’s a more expensive manufacturing process to incorporate MIPS. So that’s reflected in the cost. We’re not making an additional profit on the MIPS helmet. That increased price just represents the materials and the manufacturing cost to include that.”

Bz:

Do you support MIPS in their research and development?
CS:

“Yeah. Now I don’t know what that looks like as far as a financial component, at all. But we worked very close with them to develop the shell, and they worked with us to develop the interior portion of the helmet. Because we wanted to make sure that the MIPS retention system was going to go into our shell, be compatible, and actually work. So, yeah, we worked very closely with them. It was a totally collaboration.”

Bz:

It wasn’t just a matter of fitting the MIPS, it was a complete helmet redesign. It wasn’t, ‘How can we make MIPS fit in this helmet we already have.’

CS:

“Yeah! They designed a MIPS system specifically for Lazer and specifically for this helmet.”

Bz:

When you say “system” you aren’t just talking about the rotation part and its singular attachment point. The entire helmet is the system?
CS:

“That’s correct. And that’s why this is not something that you can add to a helmet after the fact. It’s not even something that you can redesign an existing helmet to be able to take. The shell has to be designed and the foam had to be molded correctly in order for the MIPS system to mount and function correctly when there’s an impact.

And if you look at it, MIPS designed this ‘insert’ specifically for our helmets. They looked at our existing Rollsys® system that we used on our mid- and high-end adult helmets, and they duplicated the look of that Rollsys® system for the P’Nut and the Nut’Z helmets. Because they felt that the front belt and the rear basket that’s used in our retention system did such a great job, as far as the attachment points on the head, that they kind of duplicated that look when they designed the insert that goes into the shell.

So, the MIPS system, looks like our Rollsys® system, because that was the foundation they used.

But, you can always tell a MIPS helmet, because the retention is this bright yellow. And that’s how you identify the part of the helmet that’s actually going to move vs. the shell. Because everything yellow is what’s moving in the case of an impact.”

Bz:

Since MIPS liked and chose to keep and use your Rollsys® system, will we see a version of your retention system in other manufacturers’ MIPS helmets?
CS:

“No. I can only assume that other manufacturers are going to want to collaborate with MIPS in order to either take their retention system and figure out a way to modify it to do the same job in their helmets, or to come up with a completely new system.

The benefit that our Rollsys® system offers, is it encircles the entire head between the front and rear component of the Rollsys® system. To my knowledge, I don’t know of another helmet manufacturing company that is making a retention system that encircles the entire head. The competitors that I’m aware of, the entire adjustable section of the retention system sits at the back of the head, and as you adjust it tighter it pulls the front of the helmet tighter against the rider’s forehead.

We developed this, again, to go all the way around the circumference of the rider’s head and to offer the adjustabilty and the comfort, and that’s why it was so easy for MIPS to use that same style mechanism. Because it does go all the way around the rider’s head, and that’s what you have to have with this MIPS system. If you’re going to isolate the rider’s head from the shell, it has to hold on to the entire circumference of the rider’s head.”

Bz:

I’ve read a test report that compared the performance of sub-$20 helmets and $150+ helmets. They found virtually no difference in performance, and the cheaper helmets slightly outperformed at low impacts.

For an additional $20, the MIPS helmets are supposed to reduce brain damage, or potential brain damage, by about 33%. Is that a real number?
CS:

“Yeah! And that’s directly from MIPS.

If you want to follow up on that I can put you in contact with those guys. They’d be more than happy to talk to you about their system and that number.

Obviously it’s their number, it’s their testing standard. But, it’s a real number and they’ve duplicated it in the lab time and time again.”

Bz:

A $20 investment can reduce your risk of brain damage by about 1/3?

CS:

“Yes.”

Bz:

But the MIPS system isn’t going to be available in lower-end helmets.
CS:

“Not yet.”

Bz:

I can’t expect to buy a $45 helmet, as opposed to a $25 helmet, and expect to have a MIPS system in it?

CS:

“Not from Lazer. Not from anybody, I believe.

Technology like this can’t be deployed all at once.”

Bz:

What about over the next five to ten years?
CS:

“Oh, absolutely! I think it’ll be a much shorter time frame than that.”

Bz:

Less than five years?
CS:

“Yeah. I don’t know if it will be ubiquitous in the helmet market. But, I am pretty confident to say that within the next five years you will be able to find a MIPS helmet at a number of different price points, for adults. Absolutely.”

[After my interview with Chris, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Daniel Lanner, a technical engineer from MIPS. – Bz]
Bz:

Would you explain the MIPS testing standard/procedure? Chris referred to is as more “real world.”
Daniel Lanner:

“I take it Chris refers to the fact that today’s helmet tests, no matter helmet category, are only focusing on straight radial impacts (90 degree) whereas in a majority of all hits of the the head to the ground, you fall with an angled impact.

The difference between the two impacts is the type of violence or energy they transmit into the brain. A straight radial hit provides straight radial or translational energy, a type of energy we know is less damaging to the brain. The angled impact, however, gives rise to rotational energy and violence to the brain. So today’s helmets are not tested to withstand the most common and most damaging blows to head – angled. Rotational violence is the cause of the most severe type of brain injuries. These injuries are called Subdural Haematoma and Diffuse Axonal Injury. (Please view our website for more extensive information)”

Bz:

Would you explain the reliability of the claim of reducing potential brain damage by about 33% using a MIPS vs. non-MIPS helmet and how that number was arrived at?
DL:

“It is difficult to set a specific number in percentage that the MIPS system reduces brain damage. The reduction using the MIPS system differs depending on impact site and direction to the helmet. However studies have shown that rotational measurements (rotational acceleration and rotational velocity) correlate well to the risk of brain injuries and that a reduction of these measurements reduces the risk of brain damage. With the MIPS system, we reduce the magnitude of these rotational measurements in the order of 25-55 %.”

Bz:

Chris was aware of three manufacturers using, or soon to be using, MIPS: Lazer, POC and one other. Who is the third manufacturer? Is that number rising? Will MIPS helmets be more broadly or even generally available over the next few years? Do you have a time frame?
DL:

“Except for POC and Lazer, the US brand Burton brings their snow helmet brand RED to market this season. In addition, two different equestrian helmet brands – Back on Track and Felix Bühler – distribute helmets in Europe.  At this weeks’ international bicycle trade show, Eurobike, there will be two additional brands launching helmets with MIPS. I am afraid I can’t reveal their brand name yet.

We are currently working on implementing MIPS in several bike, snow, motorcycle, military and ice hockey helmets. All to be launched during late 2011 and 2012.”

Bz:

Is MIPS working to change the legal standards (CPSE, ASI, CE) officially? Or will the higher, more realistic MIPS standard remain entirely voluntary? If so, do you think that it will eventually spread throughout the industry in all (US/Canada, Australia/New Zealand, Europe) markets?
DL:

We are members of and participating in meetings with the mentioned certifying bodies and yes, we are working towards having the general test standards upgraded with a demand that helmets provide protections against angled impacts and rotational violence. We believe that the consumer demand for optimal protection will create a pressure on helmet manufacturers to include such technologies well ahead of any change of regulations. The official changes tend to take very long.

MIPS are, as mentioned  above, delivering our technology to a fast growing number of leading brands in most helmet categories and we expect that to continue spreading across helmet segments and geographies.”

Bz:

Are you aware of any alternate “real-world” standards either in use or in development by other companies?


DL:

“If you refer to the helmet industry, no. For other industries, a good comparison could be made with the airbag for the car industry. It started out as something very exclusive and to some consumers an obscure safety feature. But as the market got aware of the massive safety impact it has, the airbag has more or less become a “real-world” standard without authorities changing laws and regulations. Would you buy a car without an airbag? We see the same happening in the helmet industry  where consumers will shift from old technology to new technology and include MIPS or future similar solutions.”

—————–

You can also read and discuss Pt 2 of this interview at Cyclismas

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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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