Swedish Hövding (Chieftain) Airbag Headgear
Summary: A Swedish company is producing airbag bike headgear. Can it really protect the way a traditional helmet does?
The Hövding web page explains their headgear that is based on the airbag principle, with an inflating plastic protective bonnet designed to deploy when the rider crashes. Here is a video of one test crash.
Airbag helmets have been the subject of conversation for years, often accompanied by satiric photos of riders with balloons on their heads. But this one is a serious attempt to put the mechanism to work.
The deviceThe device is a project of two Swedish designers who founded the Hövding company, and was in design and development for five years before it was introduced in October of 2010. The designers wanted to create a product that would not cause "helmet hair" and would appeal to those who would not wear a normal bike helmet.
The airbag is nylon, and inflates with a gas generator when embedded gyros and accelerometers tell it a crash is taking place. The gyros have to be powered during use, so the Chieftain has a rechargeable battery. That seems like a real drawback to us, since the user has to be aware of the battery charge level (there are led indicators) and remember to keep it charged. After a crash the manufacturer wants the headgear back to check its embedded "black box" for recorded movements prior to your crash. They offer "a discount" on the replacement. This is not a multi-use product, so if it inflates when unnecessary the owner has to pay for the replacement.
The video shows a test dummy on a bicycle struck from behind by a car indicated as moving at 20 kph (12 mph). The dummy is thrown backwards over the hood and impacts its head on the flat part of the windshield. The bag deploys prior to the impact.
That is one specific scenario. But how well did the helmet perform? There is no instrumentation trace visible registering how many g's the dummy head saw. What would have happened to the dummy when it hit the road after the car? And what would happen in a simple fall? Or a collision with a tree branch or utility pole, the mirror of a truck, or the front of a bus or truck? And if the cyclist had not been stationary, but had been traveling at a speed near that of the car? And what if there is another impact after the bag begins to lose air? Nothing in the Hövding web site addresses those questions. Although the device may activate from body motions in some crash scenarios, there are others where the motions occur after the impact, so this device would not cover the full range of impacts that cyclists experience.
The greatest danger in using the device would be impacting something with a bare head if the device did not deploy. We are not going to be easy to convince that it will always be there, given the many ways an impact to a cyclist's head can occur.
Can it pass standards?Helmet lab testing normally includes testing wet, cold and hot samples. They are tested against rounded anvils and curbstone anvils as well as flat ones. The test would have to be of a fully-inflated Chieftain. How well would this device perform against the grapefruit-shaped hemispheric anvil, or the curbstone anvil? Would it perform after being immersed in water for four hours? Would it pass the positional stability test once it was inflated? Would it perform at -15 and plus 50 degrees Centigrade? (That's 5 to 122 degrees F.) All of these questions assume testing on conventional equipment as called out in the CPSC standard, and there are good reasons based on field experience for each of the test parameters.
We doubt that the Chieftain can pass CPSC, and it would have to for the US market. The CPSC definition of a helmet is:
"Bicycle helmet means any headgear that either is marketed as, or implied through marketing or promotion to be, a device intended to provide protection from head injuries while riding a bicycle. (Section 1203.4.2 (b))
That seems to encompass the Chieftain. Hövding has introduced the device in the European market at a very high price, but is not selling them to US customers. Apparently it is not required to pass the CEN bicycle helmet standard to be sold in Europe. It might simply be certified for the CE mark. European test rigs are very different, and we don't know if it would pass the EN 1078 standard or not, but it would have to be tested after inflation in any event. EN 1078 defines a helmet as "an item to be worn on the head and intended to absorb the energy of an impact, thus reducing the risk of injury to the head." That would seem to exclude the Chieftain. Hövding must have some idea of that, but we could not find any reference to standards on their Web site.
Swedish Folksam testingIn 2012 the Swedish insurance company Folksam tested bicycle helmets, including the Hövding. You can read their test article in English. Unfortunately they used unconventional testing methods. They state in the article that all the helmets met the European bike helmet standard, but the Hövding does not. They rated the Hövding highly for one type of test they did, saying it was three times better than the other helmets, but did not even attempt to include it at all in their other tests. And they don't explain what "three times" means. You have to applaud their willingness to take on the challenge of testing the Hövding, but the article really does not provide enough information on the testing to make it useful, and did not even attempt to do a full battery of tests.
Stanford Testing - 2016In 2016 Stanford testers produced https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhikbrBxFeY this video clip documenting their testing of the Hövding and other tests. The results were immediately picked up by the media as a full endorsement of the product, although the researchers pointed out that if the airbag failed to deploy the weight of it around your neck could actually make the impact worse. (Possible impacts include truck and bus mirrors, bridge abutments, overhanding limbs, signs, etc.) Media reports indicate that in current air bag helmets the expansion process did not seem to guarantee maximum air pressure, so the bag can bottom out and pass all additional energy directly to the head, failing the standard. The video concentrates on concussion risk for bicyclists, as if it were comparable to the multiple concussion risk that football players experience. The only anvil shown is flat, rather than the hemisphercal or curbstone. The researchers did other work to determine what the optimum airbag helmet would be. You can see the results in this journal article for $40.
Other questionsThe Chieftan raises other questions: what about wearability? Is it comfortable? Some who have tried it think the weight and shoulder/neck position are less comfortable for them than a conventional bike helmet. Would it be sweaty in hot weather, since there is no ventilation between the wide collar and the chest? There is a statement in the company's instructions about not being able to wash the collar that we do not understand. Could it interfere with neck flexibility while riding? While crashing? Could it injure the rider's neck as it deployed? The designers complain about helmets feeling like a "mushroom" on their head, but millions of riders wear helmets comfortably, and this device around your neck might be worse.
It is not possible to answer questions based on the manufacturer's Web site and video. But this may prove to be a welcome advance in head protection, and there is no need to be too skeptical until we know more.
This photo of the deployed device is on the Hovding Web page.
Other applicationsIf the device can detect all crash scenarios, the mechanism could be used to deploy other forms of protection for other body parts. APC Helmets has an airbag system in a motorcycle helmet, but they have fitted the airbag to deploy under the helmet as a neck support in the event of a crash. In that case if the airbag does not deploy you still have the protection of a conventional helmet. Hit Air has a system with an airbag jacket that deploys when a rider is thrown from the motorcycle and a tether is yanked. The problem is that in some scenarios the airbag will not open, as when the motorcycle and rider crash together into a barrier or go down simultaneously to the side. For equestrian use it might not deploy if the horse rolls on the rider.
SignificancePerhaps the greatest significance of the Hövding announcement is that at least somebody is trying to solve the helmet problem for those who will not destroy their hair styles, and to address the problem encountered by shared bike programs. Shared bike programs all over the world are in need of an easily transportable helmet or one that can be dispensed from vending machines at very low cost for users of shared bicycle programs who did not think to bring a helmet or do not want to carry one. There are now several fully-certified folding helmets available, but the Hövding does not meet US standards and is expensive. If the Hövding works it could be an advance.
This page was updated or partially revised on: October 6, 2016.