How Do Bicycle Helmets Work? How Do They Protect the Head in an Accident?
Narrow city bike lanes and bumpy mountain trails might be fun and make for a good bike ride, but any setting has a problem when tackled on two wheels: how can you protect your head in the event of an accident?
The best way to prevent head injury on a bike is to, well, not crash. But the second best way is to wear a bike helmet. So, how do helmets work, and are they really effective?
How Do Bicycle Helmets Work?
Bike helmets are pretty simple in their construction. There are three main parts. First is the shell—this is the outer hard plastic shell. Besides hopefully making you look good, the shell serves an important safety role.
The shell is usually made from a slippery hard plastic. When this plastic hits the road, it slides along the asphalt. This is supposed to prevent neck injury that could occur if you meet the pavement with a …softer surface.
The other purpose of the shell is to hold the inner foam in place. Most helmets have a strategic distribution of foam throughout the shell, and this arrangement is designed to offer maximum protection. If it weren’t for the shell holding it in place, the foam could move around to less effective placements.
Inside the shell is a layer of stiff foam. This is the part of the helmet that protects your skull and brain from the force of an impact. If you fall off your bike, go flying through the air, tumble over the handlebars, the foam crumples on impact. This crumpling absorbs the force that would otherwise end up wrecking your brain.
The last, and most overlooked, part of the helmet is the strap. Maybe as a kid you just threw your helmet on and let the strap dangle in the breeze. If you’re looking to make cycling a serious habit, however, you need to make sure to securely fasten the chin strap.
Without the strap, the helmet is free to slide around your head or even come off in the event of an accident. At best, an incorrectly positioned helmet won’t protect you as well as a properly fastened one. At worst, a slipped helmet can cause more serious injuries than you would have otherwise had.
Are Bicycle Helmets Worth It?
If you have spent any time in the cycling community, you have surely encountered the debate over whether helmets work. The issue most often debated is not really whether helmets work, but whether their use is good for the bike community as a whole.
Helmet opponents claim that wearing helmets makes motorists more willing to engage in risky behavior that could put cyclists in danger because they think the helmets cancel any risk of injury. So, helmets should not be worn (or at least not mandated to be worn) in order to make motorists act more responsibly towards cyclists.
However, when you consider only the health of the individual rider, it’s a no-brainer—helmets save lives. It has been found that helmets reduce the risk of serious head or brain injury by around 70%. So, whether or not you think helmets are good for the long term conditions of biking infrastructure, they are certainly good for your own health and safety.
How do I find a helmet for me?
If you have decided to invest in a helmet, you might be wondering what is best for you. The first thing to think about is what kind of style you want.
Recreational bike helmets are low-cost and well-suited for everyday, casual riding. They typically look more stylish and are more comfortable than other types of helmets, making them a good choice for commuting or casual neighborhood rides.
Road bike helmets are designed to be lightweight and aerodynamic so they can keep up with you mile after mile—who wants their helmet slowing them down, after all? Though they may be more pricey than recreational helmets, road bike helmets are worth the added cost if you are planning to take biking seriously.
Mountain bike helmets are the most protective of the three helmet types. They often feature extra padding and usually have more comprehensive coverage for the back of the head. Some models even feature a chin guard to protect from flying rocks and other debris.
You will also want to consider the conditions you usually ride in, and what other gear you have. For instance, some helmets feature a visor, which is especially useful if you often ride in bright sunlight or don’t have a good pair of sunglasses. Some helmets offer liners for added comfort, and many offer more robust protection systems.
At the end of the day, the most important part of helmet buying is to make sure it fits well. Use a tape measure or a piece of string that can be measured to determine your head size by wrapping the measuring tape or string around the largest part of your head—about 1” above your eyebrows. You will be able to match this measurement to the size of the helmet you are considering.
In addition to proper sizing, it is helpful to find a helmet that is adjustable. The chin strap is usually adjustable, but you may also want to find a helmet with an adjustable head size. Most helmets today have a wheel you can spin to adjust the head size, but some use interchangeable pads to tailor the head size.