Updated 9:07 pm, 29 September 2011 by cycletard. Please see postscript.
I had been contemplating a helmet article for a few months, when, bam, I stumbled onto Chris Smith from Lazer Sport on Twitter.
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my entire initial conversation with him was not based on curiosity about helmets as much as it was about whether or not he’d be a good interviewee. Every one of those initial questions were just probes, feeling out his knowledge base and his frankness.
I mean, was he just going to spit out the company line? Or would he say something interesting?
While many of his answers look like the “standard company line,” and some of them certainly are, many are also truthful in a practical sense. He was a lot more open than what I’d expected, but I still had some frustration in the nature of a few responses.
For instance, is it a cop-out when a company builds helmets within the current – and admittedly inadequate – legal testing standards, and falls back on the argument of ‘lack of empirical data’ as a reason for continuing to make helmets without faired or recessed vents; or with more and larger vents even though it means that smaller sections of harder foam crush against a rider’s skull in the event of a crash; with a visor; or to justify the “aero tail” for purely recreational riders when it gives no clear benefit but may in fact increase the chance for a rotational brain injury?
Yes and no.
If there are concerns regarding unfaired vents, unrecesssed vents, aero-tails, the potential of being sliced in the face by a visor, thinner and harder vent ribs actually being less safe despite performing identically during testing of the legal standard, then who is it incumbent upon to study those concerns? Shouldn’t that be helmet manufacturers? Do they get to turn their heads and ignore possibly serious and even dangerous failings in their products merely because the current legal standard fails to make them responsible for that specific aspect?
It’s clear from the interview that the legal standard is widely acknowledged within the industry to be inadequate and unrealistic. Once that is acknowledged, doesn’t it become the responsibility of manufacturers to ensure that their helmets are safe according to real-world standards and not merely an ineffectual and unrealistic legal standard?
Are helmet manufacturers negligent if they fail to at least examine the possibilities that certain features may be inherently unsafe?
But if helmet manufacturers are negligent, then don’t consumers hold some responsibility as well?
… if safety is the only goal in helmet manufacturing, then you’re not going to survive as a company.”
And he established several times during our interview that customers are not purchasing helmets based on which one has the best safety features, nor based on which has the fewest unsafe features, and that consumers – when they bother to contact Lazer either directly or through their dealers – aren’t concerned with safety-based features, but instead with cosmetics and things like “will I be able to put my sunglasses in the vents of this helmet?”
It would seem that, at a minimum, consumers are complicit in any negligence on behalf of the helmet industry.
On one hand, manufacturers have a responsibility to make the safest helmet possible, and when they know that the legal testing standard is inadequate and unrealistic, then they have the additional responsibility of developing helmets that protect in real-world situations.
But, if the consumer proves through their buying habits and through an utter lack of expressed interest in those safer helmets, and the manufacturers might in fact run themselves into the ground by producing maximally-safe helmets that will then be purchased by virtually no one, then it seems right and reasonable that, as an act of self-preservation, such helmets are not offered.
If consumers say they want more vents, and they don’t care if the resulting helmet puts smaller sections of harder foam crushing against their skull should they crash, then what?
Is it the manufacturers’ responsibility to save us from ourselves and refuse to make that type of helmets? If one manufacturer refuses, then won’t there be others willing to oblige?
But Lazer’s (and I assume most if not all manufacturers’) practice of looking, as Chris said, “at what consumers are already buying in that segment” seems to blatantly ignore any possible direct input from consumers. There are no studies, no polls, no questionnaires, no focus groups, no email queries via a database of existing customers.
It’s just, “hey, which helmets are our competitors selling the most of and what features do those helmets already have?” That’s not only a very indirect method of gathering data, but it fails to take into account that consumers only have a specific selection of helmets and features available without even wondering if maybe we’d like something different if we were given an opportunity to provide direct feedback. It’s like the industry doesn’t really give a damn about whether or not we want safer helmets, it’s going to offer us what IT thinks we want and if that isn’t good enough, well just too damned bad.
When Chris says, “I would politely take issue with people saying that’s what they’re looking for, because that’s not what they’re looking for, because that’s not what people are buying,” isn’t at least a portion of that due to the fact that we can’t buy those helmets with specific safety features because they aren’t even offered?
You can say that consumers “vote” with their wallets, but they can only “vote” in that manner for products that are already on the market and readily available for purchase.
The claim of not knowing or being able to tell if certain features, like faired vents, recessed vents, rounded vent opening edges, or lack of an aero-tail are truly safer or not because of a lack of empirical data and lack of testing standards, on the one hand is true and practical, but on the other is disingenuous. They’d have that empirical data if they gathered it.
And I apologize if this seems like I’m picking on Chris and Lazer. They just happen to be the sacrificial offering, laid upon the altar on behalf of the industry entire. And as of this writing, POC has not replied with requested feedback.
Let’s take, for instance, the Lazer Rigidity Brace System (RBS). Is there a legal testing standard to determine if this is actually safer? Have there been official studies? Or did someone just say, “Hey, if we manage to keep the foam together in multiple low-speed impacts that might be a good thing and save some riders from suffering brain or skull injuries!?”
I mean, sure it SEEMS like a great idea, and quite logical, but shucks, without that legal testing standard and that empirical data, it’s just pointless to even try to know for certain. Right?
Of course not. So I don’t buy the argument that commonsense can’t be used in evaluating the benefits or dangers of certain features. Like, I don’t buy that you just can’t know without a legal testing standard and an official study supplying official empirical data that narrower vent ribs made of harder foam will cause more damage when smashing into your skull than will wider vent ribs made of softer foam.
X amount of energy reaching your skull over a smaller area, delivered through a harder, less giving surface is a bad thing. I don’t need an army of engineers and scientists to spend millions of dollars and hundreds of hours in a lab to figure that out for me.
As I mentioned above, the people who bother contacting Chris and his industry counterparts at all seem only to be concerned with cosmetics, weight, airflow and convenience features, instead of with any facet of helmet safety. I find that very disappointing.
Because I know from reading what cyclists and fans of cycling say on Twitter and elsewhere to me, that many people are very concerned with helmet safety issues. So, why aren’t any of those people complaining to the people who actually make decisions about what features go into the helmets we buy and use? Why aren’t they calling and writing Chris at Lazer and his counterparts at other helmet manufacturers? If you’re going to expend the breath or energy to complain, then, damn it, complain so as to actually make a difference.
Even more disappointing is this; when Chris addressed the issue of customer contact he said, “…if I did get those questions, it would have to go back to, well, you know, our helmets are designed to meet and exceed the current testing standard.”
In other words, even if you do get off your ass and direct your needs, desires and complaints to the guy or the place where it matters – or should matter – you’ll get brushed off. Why? Because companies like Lazer don’t really give a damn about what you want? They only care about focusing on selling you what they want to sell you? When it comes right down to it, that’s really how it seems to be.
How is it possible to combat that? Well, Lazer and other companies might blow YOU off if you call. But, what if it wasn’t just you? What if it was you and three of your friends all in a week, plus a guy from your club and three of his friends, plus a guy you pass on the trail a couple times per month and three of his friends, plus…? As the numbers mount it becomes more difficult and less practical to ignore them.
Or what if you initiated a petition directed to the heads of several major helmet manufacturers at someplace like Change.org? What if a few thousand people all signed up for something like that and all those names and requests or demands went out to all those helmet manufacturers? What if you did that again every six months until they finally granted you the notice and respect you deserve and began producing better helmets? Helmets with commonsense safety features, like faired and recessed vents, like fewer and smaller vents and thicker vent ribs, like no aero-tail and no visor, like rounded shells. Wouldn’t that be better than having them fall back on, “Well, these other helmets meet the legal testing standard that all of us in the industry readily acknowledge to be inadequate and unrealistic.” Why not upset the paradigm that the consumer will buy whatever these companies make and keep their mouths shut and like it?
Chris says, and I don’t doubt his sincerity, “We are a helmet manufacturing company and the rider’s safety, at the end of the day, is our number one priority.” But, is that true? I mean, in a practical, real world sense, is it true? Because that notion seems to contradict a lot of what we covered in our interview.
I do not mean to say – not in any way or to any extent – that helmet manufacturers intentionally make unsafe helmets. But, I do mean that they are ready and willing to settle for “safe enough” while using the known-to-be-inadequate legal testing standard as a shield and a convenience.
Companies like Lazer and POC are at least attempting to change on some level with the introduction of MIPS to (so far) a very small portion of their overall product lines. But unlike MIPS, those other features that we’ve mentioned – faired vents, etc. – don’t require any special period of compatibility development and they don’t cost an extra $20 per helmet to introduce. They can be done now and at very minimal cost.
Chris and the guys at Lazer, POC and other helmet companies are not evil people. They don’t want you to have unsafe helmets just so they can line their pockets with fat stacks of your cash. But, if they’re going to become motivated to alter the helmet lines to reflect YOUR desire for specific safety features, then YOU will have to express your thoughts directly to them, and you’ll have to encourage your friends to do the same. They’re going to need to know that “if they build it, you will come” (to thoroughly mangle a Field of Dreams quote). They’ll need to know that in giving you helmets with these features, that they won’t be sacrificing their very company to insincere whim and caprice. They need to know that we’re not only asking for helmets with certain features and without others, but that if those helmets are offered to us, we will buy them.
So contact the manufacturer of your favorite helmets and express your opinions. Then get your friends to do the same. And have them get their friends involved. And so on.
Here is some contact information for a few helmet manufacturers for you to begin with:
Giro: @GiroSportDesign (on Twitter)
Bell: Bell Contact Form Page
Chris Smith has written a very thoughtful reply to this opinion piece which I urge everyone to read. You can find it on his tumblr blog here. This has been an interesting dialogue, and we are grateful to Bikezilla for his questions, and to Chris Smith of Lazer Sport for his answers. Our aim with this piece is to educate, inform, and provoke thought and investigation. Please make educated choices about your selection of cycling helmet, and always wear a lid when you ride. ~ cycletard