Provocation vs. Prevarication

In response to my previous post about new helmet technologies a teammate forwarded a link to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute which takes issue with some of the points made in Barcott’s Bicycling magazine article.  The BHSI does have a very important objection which I’ll address in a minute.  They also point to a number of factual errors in the article and include a list.  But their chief concern seems to be that the article “over-stated” its point and was written simply to be “provocative” with the clear implication that that is a bad thing.  The BHSI itself relies on over-statement when in its title it suggests that Barcott’s article “has many misleading statements;” by their own admission the factual errors are “minor.”  Furthermore, being provocative is not the same thing as being “alarmist.”  No one reading Barcott’s article could fail to recognize that there was a lot of research and work that went into this; this is not simply the hack journalist’s “[Fill in the Blank] gives you Cancer!!!!!” story.

What is as interesting as the elements of Barcott’s article that the BHSI challenges are the things they don’t challenge.  They don’t challenge the validity of the basic issue: that there is a problem with the ability of our helmets to protect us from concussions.  They don’t challenge the statistics Barcott cites or the most of the medical research upon which he relies.  Moreover, they don’t deny the larger point he makes and which I seized upon in my own blog entry: that cycling culture has for years been promoting and buying helmets for entirely the wrong reasons, that we have no reliable data (beyond a very basic “this helmet won’t come apart” standard) for how well the helmets work from a safety point of view, and that there is little interest on the part of manufacturers or regulatory agencies in coming up with better helmet designs and testing procedures that work with both theoretical and empirical science and the conditions of real-world riding.  The BHSI, like any organization, has its own agenda, but it probably doesn’t help their case when they try to soft-pedal some of the more indisputable elements of Barcott’s article.  Barcott, they note, argues that the “CPSC [Consumer Product Safety Commission] has no rotational energy test, but neither does any other bicycle helmet standard in the world.” Well, that’s hardly comforting.  It is never a good argument for not doing something right to argue that no one else is doing it.  Note that they also do not dispute one of the biggest issues Barcott highlights: the “drop it on its top” test has virtually no application to real-world impact situations.  It has given us helmets that don’t disintegrate like eggshells and that fact has protected our heads.  Barcott’s piece merely argues that they could be better protected, and maybe we should, I don’t know, do something about that?

I think the real issue is that the BHSI piece doesn’t respond to the larger cultural problem (cyclists. manufacturers, and agencies all bearing some degree of blame here).  Let’s assume, charitably, that the BHSI is right and there is more widespread concern about concussions out there and there are lots of people working to design helmets with those concerns in mind.  If that is true, then we have to acknowledge that the pace of innovation is pathetically slow.  Funnily enough, bike component manufacturers seemed to solve the problem of electronic shifting pretty damn quick.  There are also no shortage of ideas for how to build bike frames that weigh half a pound and which can withstand being jumped on by an NFL linebacker.  But I don’t think it is true that safety is as big a concern as we would like to think it is.  I go back to the point in my original post: the problem is that helmets are now falsely being regarded as a performance accessory rather than a safety one.  In this year’s Tour I’ve already seen two of the in-coverage infomercials that they love to do (“Let’s talk with X bike manufacturer about their product”; hey, I know, they have to pay the bills) which have focused on “new” helmets.  These helmets have both been discussed according to, guess what, how light they are, how aerodynamic they are, and the airflow of their vents.  But hey, it is the Tour, aren’t these specialist helmets?  These infomercials, as anyone who has seen them knows, almost always end up with someone noting that these products “will soon be available to ordinary cyclists at their local bike shop.”  So Barcott is right; there is this very strange sense that perfect safety in helmet design has already been achieved, and now we can worry about all the geeky stuff that middle-aged guys will pay a gazillion Euros for.

The BHSI points out that MIPS is not the only approach out there and while I don’t think I implied that it was in my original post I do want to emphasize that.  And the particular helmet I ended up with was in large part due to availability.  MIPS is the technology that has made it to market first and in my area.  MIPS may not even be the best solution (but hey BHSI, if you want to prove that, why don’t you work on that rotation test issue instead of kvetching that no one else does it so why should we?).  In fact, it has one very significant obstacle that the BHSI points out.  In the real world, our helmets already rotate, sometimes radically, because many people do not do them up properly.  God knows that is true; I sometimes see even some of my very experienced teammates wearing their helmets so loosely that they might as well not be fastened at all.

But I think the BHSI is mainly focusing on relatively insignificant issues in Barcott’s piece and while they may not have intended to do so their response simply obscures the big picture that we should be looking at.  So I have two final thoughts on this:

1) Virtually every single helmet out there at the moment meets a safety standard that ensures that in all but the most extreme circumstances imaginable our heads will remain intact.  But now, there are some people who are trying to add an extra layer of protection above and beyond that, to try and address a problem that everyone (including critics of the MIPS approach) acknowledges exists: the concussion issue.  So what have you got to lose by purchasing one of those helmets?  Especially if it costs significantly less than the Bellspecialrudyro helmet you were wearing before?

2) Before, I would have chosen a helmet based on many of the superficial features I’ve highlighted.  But my concern would always have been to adjust that helmet so that it was strapped down tight enough that it didn’t move on my head.  That is materially aided by the helmet fitting well.  And I have lucked out here because the Scott helmet fits my particular head shape like a glove.  But what if it doesn’t fit your head shape?  Well, if we were talking about regular helmets what you would do is simply go and try on helmets from other manufacturers.  But when it comes to this question of concussion mitigation there are virtually no other manufacturers testing out new technologies.  We don’t have choices in that area.  There is an extraordinary amount of R&D being put into faster wheels, and wicking fabrics, and hydration systems that automatically mix your drinks for you, and on-bike catheters (OK, I made the last two up, but I’m sure they are coming).  I would like a little, just a little, of that energy to go into, oh, you know, safety?

I’ve used the words “concussion mitigation” for a reason.  In no sense am I saying or expecting that a helmet would/should 100% guarantee to protect me from a concussion.  Life, and our bodies and brains, are just too unpredictable for that.  But Barcott’s very simple point, beyond all the obfuscatory objections by groups like the BHSI, is simply that we could be doing a better job in this area, and that we as cyclists should start demanding that manufacturers and regulatory agencies do so.

In the words of Wallace: “No use prevaricating about the bush!”

One response to “Provocation vs. Prevarication

  1. Pingback: A Lesson Learned from the Dirty Bike-Seat Thief | Technology & the Modern Body

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