Helmets: are three decades of division over?

Helmet legislation came to Australia in 1992 and we’ve been arguing about it ever since. Why would that change?  There are a couple of reasons – one is interesting, but not exciting. The other is both interesting and exciting.

The first reason why we might be about to stop arguing about helmets is that we are all a lot more “au courant”* with arguments about epidemiology versus personal liberty. 

During COVID, we have been compliant in the main with all the restrictions that our expert advisors have come up with.  If everyone is required to wear masks to go to the shop, it doesn’t seem so severe to plop a helmet on when stepping onto a bike. 

Some might argue, and clearly do, that both mask and helmet mandates are a restriction on our liberty. There is also room to question the scientific evidence or economic benefit of mandates. For example, do we really need to wear a mask in a regional town where there is little likelihood that there are cases of COVID? Is there a benefit from social distancing and masking greater than the cost to the economy of, for instance, reducing shopping or cancelling performances? There must be some doubt, but we are generally all wearing it. 

There is social pressure to be conscientious about COVID precautions, and to be seen to be conscientious about it. This may extend into other domains like road behaviour. What’s more, some of the people who may object most to helmet laws, may be the same people who want stronger rules to restrict COVID. The dissonance in support for social controls may result in the helmet conversation being recast. 

The second reason that helmet fights may be coming to an end is hopefully less transitory than COVID. Helmets are no longer “just” brain boxes. In road safety, there has long been a distinction between passive and active safety. Passive safety devices, like seat belts and airbags, are only useful once an impact is involved.  Helmets have traditionally been in the passive category. What’s more, early generation helmets probably had marginal effectiveness, were uncomfortable, poorly ventilated and heavy. Now we have better helmets featuring technology such as MIPS (Multiple Impact Protection Systems) designed for better impact absorption and to reduce neck torsional injuries. Still passive, but maybe more effective.

Recently, we have developed a new role for helmets. They have evolved into active safety devices. Active safety means preventing collisions. Helmets have this potential in at least two ways:

  • They can be conspicuity aids. That is, they can make riders easier to see and communicate their presence to other road users. A Hi-Viz colour helmet has always been safer than a dark one. It is a triumph of marketing and fashion, over safety and sense, that we don’t make and sell more Hi-Viz helmets. Colour is just one way we can increase conspicuity. Lighting is another. We are now starting to see helmets with integrated lighting. A couple of years back I contributed to a Kickstarter campaign for a Lumos helmet with integrated lights. It arrived recently and I’m loving the tech. While the Ultra model I got is a little heavier than the Specialized Prevail 2 I’m used to, it looks cool and the lights stand out. The Lumos uses MIPS technology and meets Australian Standards. It features indicator lights triggered by a handlebar mounted Bluetooth remote. The indicators can also be synched to an Apple Watch for gesture-based activation. It is possible to get a brake light version triggered via an accelerometer. 

I haven’t seen evidence that drivers recognise the helmet mounted indicators – the studies haven’t been done as far as I know. But this may change if the technology takes off. In any case, triggering the helmet indicators is a nice supplement to a raised arm. Leaving the helmet indicator on while braking and preparing for the turn possibly reduces the time one needs to have a hand off the bars and being relatively unstable.

  • Helmets can also be part of the platform for V2B (Vehicle to Bike) communication. This is exemplified by the Arenberg/Telstra helmet demonstration project recently promoted with the assistance of cycling legend Anna Meares. The helmet in this case contains camera, GPS and audio technology. Data is sent from the helmet via 5G to a processing and analytics Cloud along with data sent to the Cloud from connected cars. Advice can then be sent back to road users. This may be to the rider (via a speaker in the helmet) about hazards that would not otherwise be detected – for instance opening doors or cars approaching from side streets. It could also be to the driver of the car (or autonomous controllers of the car) to initiate avoidance. 

There is clearly still a way to go before this sort of technology comes of age. For greatest effect, it will require a transformation in the road system that integrates high speed communication and analytics for the benefit of all road users.

While there are challenges, the active safety potential of helmets is exciting. Not just because I have a new helmet (with an app!), but also because helmets can be at the forefront (forehead?) of integrating bike riders with vehicles of the future using 5G communication and V2X technology. All this talk about 5G, why do I feel we have come back to talking about COVID … ?

* Using the French term for “familiar” is appropriate as this piece is being written while watching the Tour de France riders climbing to Tignes through pouring rain 

Words Rod Katz