The Airbag Bike Helmet: Now You Don’t See It, Now You Do (Except Not in the US)

May 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Nöden är uppfinningarnas moder.

That’s Swedish for “Necessity is the mother of invention” (unless I’m just completely mistaken).

For Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, industrial design students at Sweden’s Lund University in 2005, the necessity was a new law that required children under the age of 15 to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. They understood that many people, including kids, don’t like wearing traditional bike helmet’s, so they wanted to create something that people would enjoy wearing and that would still keep them safe. The result was a collar worn around the neck that uses an accelerometer to detect a crash and instantly inflates an airbag to surround the head when needed.

In 2011 the Hövding (or “Chieftain”) passed required safety testing in Europe, receiving CE certification, and is now sold in 17 European countries—as far east as Istanbul—and in Japan. So, to readers in the US, when will you see one on a street near you? Probably not soon.

At first I assumed that the major issue was that Americans just aren’t sold on the idea, so I was hoping for some brave early adopters here to get the ball rolling. (I have the same hope for the Ostrich Pillow, another headgear innovation that I’d like to be the second or third on my block to own.) Or maybe it’s the cost: about $350—and it has to be replaced after deploying. But no, that’s not what’s holding it back, at least not yet. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to get one here.

First of all, according to the company’s website, the Hövding hasn’t met American testing standards for bicycle helmets. Second, it can’t be mailed outside of Europe (Japan has them because the airbags are made there). And third—because I know you’re thinking you’ll take your next vacation to Sweden and bring one back with you—TSA won’t allow one on your flight because of its CO2 cartridge.

As for the safety-standards factor in the States, a 2016 Stanford study shows the product’s potential. Mehmet Kurt, part of the Stanford research team, states that “air bag helmets, with the right initial pressure, can reduce head accelerations five to six times compared to a traditional bicycle helmet.” But the kicker is that “right initial pressure.” If the airbag doesn’t inflate with the maximum amount of air, then a forceful impact could cause the helmet to “bottom out,” and the head would strike the ground (or other obstacle) through the cushioning.

But maybe someday . . . here. The Stanford group calls for a general updating of US helmet standards and testing, which, they say, “are very far behind.” And then they want a more in-depth look at several aspects of the Hövding: how it protects against rotational accelerations and forces, how it performs when dropped from greater heights, what can be done to eliminate bottoming-out issues, and how to make it “smarter.”

Here’s hoping all that can get worked out and the Hövding, or something like it, can make it to our shores. Not only would having “invisible helmets” in the US prevent injuries, but it would also increase my odds of getting to not see one firsthand.

(Taylor Kubota, “Stanford Researchers Show Air Bag Bike Helmets Have Promise,” Stanford News, October 3, 2016)

[photo: “Bike PDX,” by sama093, used under a Creative Commons license]

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