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The Helmet Update

Vol. 12, No. 2 - August, 1994
Previous Issue: March, 1994

Consumer Reports Publishes Helmet Ratings

The August, 1994, Consumer Reports contains a first-class article on bicycle helmets. CU only rates bicycle helmets every four or five years, so this article is a big event.

In the usual format, general info is followed by features to look for, then a ratings chart. The features are well covered, including the importance of fit, and there is a sidebar on kid's helmets. As in 1990, CU based its impact ratings on a softest-landing approach, rather than testing for who meets the 300 g standard in the test drops. Since all the tested models met the Snell standard anyway, showing which ones exceed it by the widest margin is just what the consumer needs. CU tested only on a flat anvil, just one part of a Snell or ASTM test, but it does correspond to the crash where the rider hits something flat and hard, which is by far the most frequent scenario.

In the ratings only three helmets earned the full red blob for best impact protection: Schwinn Aerolight, Trek Micro and Bell Image (old model, not the current Image Pro). They kept the g level below 200 g's. Also rated in the top six were the Vetta Testarosa SL (excellent coverage and ventilation), Spaulding 79783 and Scott Cross-V. These three got half-red blobs for impact performance, but their g level was not reported, so it is difficult to say if the rating is significant. Below them were a group of helmets with half-red blobs or plain white (average) blobs. CU also did its own human-based rolloff tests for stability for each helmet, awarding half-blobs to ten helmets including the Schwinn, Bell Image and Trek. The Performance Microtec ST II and Troxel Nino child helmet were downrated.

On the minus side, CU failed to make the very important distinction between Snell's independent certification and a manufacturer's assertion that their helmet meets ASTM or ANSI. We think that is critical for consumers to know once the CU article is out of date next spring, but CU makes no effort to tell readers how to select helmets in coming years.

CU did a much better job this time of getting their article out while the helmets were still current models. We would not hesitate to refer consumers to this article for help in choosing a helmet, particularly seniors who need the softest-landing approach most. The rolloff test, ventilation ratings, ease of use ratings, and various other comments will all help the reader narrow the range of choices. We don't know yet about the availability of reprints. The magazine is now online on AOL, CIS, Dialog, Nexis and Prodigy.

Bell Chooses ASTM, Snell Frets

Bell Sports Inc. announced on July 7 that they would no longer seek Snell certification for any of their bicycle helmets. Bell will use the new ASTM standard instead.

The move will cost Snell $1.5 million in revenue, with a lesser savings for Bell. Bell said their primary motivation was their preference for the consensus standard-setting approach used by ASTM. Right. Bell also said that the ASTM standard was superior because it included a rolloff test. Not right. A rolloff test was approved by sub-committee vote in May, but has not received ASTM's final approvals, and will not be added to the actual standard until much later this year, assuming approval is granted. Snell, on the other hand, has upgraded its own B-90 Standard with a Supplement including a rolloff test. Supplemental Snell stickers will appear in helmets in your local bike shop soon.

Snell's Ed Becker responded with an attack on ASTM. With Bell jumping ship he found it necessary "to reassure everyone that we will not be crippled by their loss." He went on to attack ASTM's consensus process as well as the certifying mechanism that manufacturers hope to use to replace Snell, and the ASTM standard itself, which he called "flawed." This carping from an organization which has five members on the ASTM committee was a disappointment to us. In an amended press release Snell said that when it certifies a helmet to the Snell standard "we will provide certified manufacturers all the support necessary to claim ASTM qualification."

In sum, we have the country's largest helmet manufacturer abandoning the organization it has used to certify many of its bicycle helmets for 20 years. And that organization is lashing back at the standard which manufacturers hope to use as a replacement. The manufacturers often mention the cost of Snell's certification. Snell's initial reaction referred first to budgetary considerations. What does that mean for the consumer, who just wants a reliable way to recognize the best helmet available?

We continue to advise buyers to look first for the Snell sticker, but with less enthusiasm than we had last month. For one thing, Bell helmets will not have Snell stickers, even their best ones and the current models which were Snell certified. Instead, you will see a sticker from the Sports Equipment Institute certifying the helmet to the ASTM standard. That is probably a close second to a Snell sticker. The standards are comparable, although Snell's is a bit better until ASTM officially acts on its recent changes. The certifications may be of comparable integrity as well, but Snell is a known quantity and we have no experience with SEI or its process. The SEI program appears well-managed, but it will be some time before we have a good fix on SEI as a practical certifying organization. Meantime, we are members of the ASTM committee, and we support the ASTM standard as a good benchmark for consumers. In short, things are not simple any more. And now, hold onto your hats: here comes the U.S. Government.

CPSC to Write U.S. Government Standard, Hold Conference

Legislation passed by Congress and probably signed by the President by the time you read this will require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to promulgate a U.S. Government bicycle helmet standard. We expect the new standard to have minimal impact because it is unlikely to go beyond the current Snell and ASTM standards.

The law requires CPSC to promulgate a standard, but Congress will predictably not give them a staff or a budget to enforce it. The standard is likely to be essentially the same as Snell and ASTM, with the result that there will be little or no net gain for the consumer. Only one shop we have found has been selling uncertified helmets: the Branford Bicycle Exchange in Connecticut. Their catalog has a leather "hairnet" with the come-on "lighter and cooler than an ANSI-approved helmet." (We bought two and sent them to CPSC urging a recall. No action.) The CPSC standard will stop that abuse, which probably affects 50 consumers a year. Not much there for the other 67 million in the U.S.

CPSC is sponsoring a roundtable discussion on multi-activity safety helmets in Bethesda, MD (suburban DC) on September 19 from 9:30 AM to noon. The opening discussion topic will be an overview of the CPSC-proposed bicycle helmet standard. The rest of the session will be devoted to discussing a standard for multi-activity helmets to protect users in numerous sports and activities, reducing the need to buy multiple helmets. The final item is to "identify areas which are capable of resolution in time for possible inclusion in CPSC standard." If you have not been invited to this conference and want to be, contact CPSC's Office of Hazard Identification and Reduction at (301) 504-0554 and speak to either Cindy McKoy (x2232) or Sue Kyle (x2231) before September 1st. If you come for the meeting we are inviting you to an informal dinner at BHSI in nearby Arlington, VA the night before the conference. Please call, fax or e-mail us if you can come. The dinner is Sunday, September 18th, at 7 PM. We will send you directions.

ASTM Standard Revised

The ASTM bicycle helmet standard committee met in Montreal in May. The meeting considered a number of changes to the standard. These changes by the committee must work their way through the ASTM process, and if there are any objections they will have to be considered again in the December meeting. In addition, several important changes made last December received final ASTM approval in July.

One of the ASTM anvils has been changed from a sharp 90 degree edge to a rounded edge or curbstone. This may seem trivial, but the sharp edge was splitting and therefore flunking many good helmets which performed well in the field, and in practice there are few or no crashes into objects that sharp. The curbstone anvil is a better real-world test. That change has received final ASTM approval and is officially part of the standard.

The committee has also agreed on a rolloff standard, but contrary to the impression you may have from Bell's ads, it is not final. The current version uses a hook under the edge of the helmet from which a cord goes up over a pulley and back down to a weight. The weight is dropped a measured distance. The helmet should not pull off of the dummy head. This test has not yet been approved by the final ASTM process, and therefore is not part of the ASTM standard yet. Helmets which do not meet it can bear an ASTM label.

The main significance for consumers of either change is to improve the ASTM standard and make it more realistic. In our opinion no rolloff test will ever substitute for having the consumer buckle the helmet and try to push it off. Heads are different, hair is different, and strap adjustment is very different. But adding the rolloff test at least forces the manufacturer to provide a full range of strap adjustments. (The first rolloff test was adopted by Australia after some Taiwanese helmets appeared there without nape strap adjusters. Those helmets would flip off the front of the wearer's head with one finger.) Eventually the testing may be refined enough to produce reliable results for every body.

If you want a copy of the current ASTM standard, contact ASTM at 1916 Race Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103-1187, tel. (215) 299-5499. Internet: service@local.astm.org. BHSI is a member of the ASTM committee and we attend all of its meetings, in case you have comments you want brought to the committee's attention. Consumer advocates are always welcome. The next meeting will be in Phoenix, December 7 and 8. BHSI News You can find this newsletter, our latest annotated bibliography, the latest revision of our Most Asked Questions About Bicycle Helmets, our latest helmet standards comparison and other BHSI stuff on the Internet at VeloNet, otherwise known as The Global Cycling Network. You can access it by FTP or gopher at cycling.org. And don't forget that you can reach us directly for e-mail here at info@bhsi.org.

We have also added a 24-hour interactive FaxBack service at our regular phone number, (703) 486-0100. You can now call us from the handset of your fax machine and receive documents by fax immediately. Selections include statistics and background information for preparing press articles or speeches, recent helmet industry articles from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, this newsletter, our helmet standards comparison and more. We have a comment on current developments in helmets and at present we have information on the conference being hosted by CPSC as another fax selection. The same number continues to be our regular phone number, and you can leave voice messages or even reach a live volunteer in the evenings as well as use the FaxBack.

Randy Swart Director info@helmets.org

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