With the latest article that’s been going around about the side-impact helmet testing done by an insurance company in Sweden, many interesting conversations have been sparked on social media. The article has been shared by tons of people, and in a lot of different groups, and I’ve read through all of the comments almost obsessively. Safety equipment, and especially the standards by which such equipment is tested and certified, is very interesting to me. If you want to read the full study results, not just a summary, they can be found here. I’m not going to offer my interpretation of it… I feel like people can read and do that for themselves.
I first started delving deeper into all of the helmet testing standards a few years ago after the KEP helmet controversy. The big issue that came out of that situation was whether or not riding helmets are designed, or required, to protect from secondary impact – ie if your head hits the pavement, and then the horse’s hoof hits your head, is the helmet still in reasonable enough condition to help protect your head from the secondary impact of the hoof? Short version: not necessarily.
I thought that was pretty interesting, and started researching all of the different testing standards, how they ran their studies, and exactly what they tested FOR. Do most of us actually know that? Probably not. We tend to just go “well, it’s approved, it must be safe!”. It’s definitely safer than no helmet at all, for sure. But one might not offer as much protection as another. And do we even know what “approved” really means?
I was able to find a lot of information just via Google, and where I needed to fill in some gaps, I was generally able to do so via email. I heard back from all but 1 that I contacted… some sent me very basic “here is what we test for” type of information that wasn’t particularly useful, or was exactly what I’d already found via Google. Others sent me quite detailed information sheets and even videos of their test procedures. And then there’s good ol’ ASTM, who want you to pay $41 to buy the book (or PDF) of standards. Sigh. To be fair, they did answer some of my questions via email. Still, am I the only one who thinks this stuff should be very transparent and readily available?
For the most part I was very surprised to see what the majority of the testing standards actually cover. It’s FAR less than I would have imagined. Some are even just a simple *wham* to the top of the helmet and it either meets their criteria (whatever that may be) or it doesn’t. When’s the last time you got one nice, neat *wham* on the crown of your head? The most comprehensive, IMO, was definitely the SNELL testing standard, which is not a mandatory standard that any equestrian organization actually requires helmets to meet. Because of that, very few manufacturers have bothered submitting their helmets for SNELL testing at all. Even that standard isn’t perfect, and has some room for improvement as far as different types of impact that are more likely to occur during equestrian sports.
Aside from just a general lack of information, or public knowledge if you will, about testing standards, there are also a lot of folks out there who don’t seem to understand what helmets really DO or how they work.
No, a helmet will not prevent you from sustaining a head injury. Just because you got a concussion while wearing X helmet does not mean the helmet didn’t do it’s job.
No, not all helmets are created equal. Just because they all passed whatever minimum testing requirement your federation requires certainly does not mean that one is just as good as the other. Think of cars and their safety ratings (which is a system we don’t have).
No, more expensive helmets ARE DEFINITELY NOT NECESSARILY BETTER.
Also, pretty much any helmet with extensive ventilation is likely to be at least a little bit (or a lot a bit) less durable under impact. It makes sense if you think about it. Any time you start putting holes in a structure, you introduce weakness to some degree. This doesn’t mean that a helmet with bigger vents offers less protection by default, but they require some additional engineering by the manufacturer to help increase the stability of the shell, which they may or may not have. Who knows… we don’t really test that. Paneled helmets (made of separate pieces that are glued together) also seem to be less likely to maintain their structural integrity beyond the initial impact. But again… not something that the majority of the current testing methods would encompass.
Of course, one of the single most important things when choosing the right helmet is the fit. If it doesn’t fit your head correctly, it won’t sit on your head correctly, which means it may shift and/or provide less protection during impact. Buying the best-rated helmet even though it doesn’t fit is just as bad as buying the lowest-rated helmet just because it’s fashionable.
I urge everyone who is interested in helmet safety to do some research for yourself, look into the testing methods, and see what impressions you come away with. Don’t just take ANY studies or “rubber stamp” certifications at face value… it’s very easy to be an educated consumer these days if you want to be.