For 5-star head protection, cyclists have dozens of options

November 23, 2021

(Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech)

Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech

Not all bicycle helmets provide good protection against a concussion, but it’s easier than ever to find one that does. To date, some 73 bike helmets — more than half of those tested — have earned a 5-star rating from the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab.

It’s a big improvement since the launch of the bike helmet ratings in 2018. At that time, just four of the 30 helmets initially tested earned 5 stars.

The bike helmet ratings grew out of research conducted jointly by Virginia Tech and IIHS. At the time, the Virginia Tech lab was already rating headgear for other sports, including football and hockey.

The ratings fill a crucial gap in the testing required by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). To pass those tests, bike helmets must prevent head impact accelerations over 300 g, a level associated with skull fracture or severe brain injury. There is no requirement for helmets to limit concussion-level forces, which are more common among bicyclists in crashes. In addition, the CPSC tests don’t evaluate all areas of the helmet or represent real-world crash scenarios.

Virginia Tech has tested 139 bike helmets in total. In addition to the 73 helmets with 5-stars, another 37 earn 4 stars. Another 24 helmets have 3 stars and five have 2 stars. Consumers are advised to choose a 4- or 5-star helmet while also taking into account cost, fit and comfort, though any helmet is better than none.

“I’m happy to say we’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm from manufacturers for this program,” says Steve Rowson, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics who leads the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab. “They’ve been eager to improve their performance and proudly advertise helmets with 5-star ratings.”

Retailers and consumers are also paying attention.

Chang Park, general manager of Spokes Etc., a small chain of bike shops in Northern Virginia, says consumers sometimes come in looking for particular helmet models based on the ratings. The store’s salespeople also tout models with 5 stars.

“Just like everything else, there are good helmets, better helmets and, some might even say, best helmets,” Park says. “To me, one concussion is one too many.”

So far, the helmet lab has only rated adult bicycle helmets. Rowson says the lab hopes to turn its attention to children’s helmets in the coming years.

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