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


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]


Rising from Ashes: A Documentary on Biking and Hope in Rwanda

londonHere’s another entry for my list of movies “coming later to a library near you”—the documentary Rising from Ashes (2012), directed by T.C. Johnstone and narrated by Forest Whitaker.

It tells the story of the formation of a bicycling team in Rwanda and its quest to send a rider to the 2012 London Olympics. Coached by American Jock Boyer, the team includes many who as children had lost multiple family members in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Therefore, Team Rwanda has to deal not only with issues of equipment, conditioning, and time trials, but they also tackle such things as loss, emotional pain, and poverty.

One of the focal points of the film is Adrien Niyonshuti, a member of the team who lost 60 members of his family, including 6 brothers, in the genocide. Since the documentary was completed, Niyonshuti became the first cyclist to represent Rwanda in the Olympics and the first black African to qualify in mountain biking.

Rising from Ashes also features Boyer, someone who knows about firsts—being the first American to race in the Tour de France. He also knows about defeat and brokenness and striving to rebuild lives. In 2002 Boyer pled guilty to having sexual contact with a girl beginning when she was 12 years old and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. That sentence was stayed, and he was put on 5 years probation and spent 8 months in jail. A 2009 article about Boyer in the magazine Bicycling begins with the simple sentence, “The child molester prays before every meal.” It then goes on to give a detailed account of Boyer’s life, his crime, and his work in Rwanda, where he now lives.

Boyer was invited to Africa by the bicycle builder and racer Tom Ritchey, who himself had come to Rwanda searching for meaning in his own life. “To me, Rwanda represents new beginnings,” he told Bicycling, “Goodness, mercy, hope. Rwanda is me. . . . It’s anyone having to work through serious disappointments in life.”

That is the story of Rwanda, not wanting to be defined by the past mass killings but to be celebrated for redemption, recovery,  . . . and champions racing on bikes.

(Kathryn Bertine, “Documentary Tells Team Rwanda’s Moving Story,” espnW, May 8, 2013; Steve Friedman, “The Impossible Redemption of Jonathan Boyer,” Bicycling, January 2009)

[photo from First Run Features]