Bicycling safety: new bike helmet rating system from IIHS


man and woman riding bikes, wearing bike helmets

Remember learning to ride a bike? That sense of freedom, of speed, of the world suddenly opening up for you to explore with your pedaling feet? It’s a childhood milestone that most of us remember fondly, and with good reason: bicycles are just about the most efficient means of transportation we humans have yet devised. Two slim wheels attached to a tubular frame and driven by a clever set of gears that turn our churning legs into a brisk means of locomotion, bicycles are fun to ride, good exercise, great for the environment, and easy on the budget. Choosing to commute by bicycle instead of by car can save you money while burning calories. Brightly colored body-hugging Spandex bike shorts are, of course, optional. (Thank goodness.)

If you are new to commuting by bike, you’ll want to do your homework first. Will you be biking before sunup or after sundown? You’ll need lights and reflective clothing. Is your area hilly or flat? This could determine how your bike should be geared. What are the road conditions you’ll encounter? Are there dedicated bike lanes? Will you need to traverse uneven, unpaved terrain? That will affect which tires you choose for your bike. Will you be using your bike for shopping? Maybe panniers and a basket makes sense for you.

Bikes are simple machines, but they can and do break down. Do you know how to perform basic bicycle maintenance, like adjusting the seat, oiling the chain, inflating the tires, and setting the right height of the handlebars? Most of these questions are best answered by the expert at your local bike shop. He or she can walk you through all these decisions and get you on the bike that’s right for you and your commuting and recreational needs.

New bike helmet rating system

One of the first big decisions you’ll have to make regards safety equipment; specifically, choosing a bike helmet. Recent advances in materials technology and safety studies have led to a profusion of bicycle helmet styles and choices. New bicycle helmets are made of lightweight woven polymers designed with padding to absorb impact from all angles. They vary significantly in price, and cost isn’t necessarily the best predictor of performance.

To that end, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in conjunction with the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) and Virginia Tech have created a ranking system to allow bicyclists to see for themselves which helmet is best for them. According to David Zuby, the chief research officer at IIHS:

“As more people choose the bicycle as a mode of transportation, better helmet design is one of the tools that can be used to address the increasing number of cycling injuries.”

While there are federal standards that all bicycle helmets sold in the US must meet, the new standards advance the field by offering a closer analysis of more realistic accident data, gathered by researchers with experience testing other forms of protective headgear, such as hockey, football, and soccer equipment.

Steve Rowson, associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics and director of the Virginia Tech Helmet Labs says:

“Our goal with these ratings is to give cyclists an evidence-based tool for making informed decisions about how to reduce their risk of injury. We also hope manufacturers will use the information to make improvements.”

Their research found important differences in the levels of protection offered by “urban” and “road” -style helmets. They also found that helmets incorporating a Multi-Directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) (which works by reducing friction inside the helmet, alleviating the rotational forces that cause concussion in many common bike accidents) were safer than models lacking the MIPS system.

The team tested 30 popular bicycle helmets to start with and plans to add many more to their rankings, including helmets intended for off-road (BMX) biking. Check out their methodology and see their list of bike helmet ratings.

So strap on your shiny new helmet and get to pedaling! Just, please, not on the sidewalk. Some of us are still walking.