Defends its Findings
Summary: Consumers Union issued this letter in response to criticism of its findings in 1997 helmet buckle tests. CU's lab broke buckles that others had found to meet normal standards.
June 13, 1997
An Open Letter to Bicycle-Helmet Manufacturers and the Cycling Public:
I am the Technical Director for Consumers Union,
publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. In recent weeks,
Consumers Union has come under a barrage of false
accusations from bicycle helmet manufacturers and a
manufacturers' association over an article in the June issue
of our magazine.
In that article, we reported the results of testing we
conducted on two dozen 1997 models of bicycle helmets.
Among those results was the discovery that two types of
buckles, found on half of the tested helmets, had an
alarming propensity to break during routine strength testing
using industry standards.
Those buckles are identified as "ITW Nexus TSK63" and
"Pinchguard" and are found on various 1997 models made by
Bell, Giro, Rollerblade, Pro-Action and BSI. They broke
when weights attached to the straps secured by the buckles
were dropped under controlled conditions from heights of
about two feet (using an 8.8-pound weight) and about an inch
(using an 85-pound weight). Our tests were based on the
most current safety requirements of the Snell Memorial
Foundation and the American Society for Testing and
Materials, two of the groups that set voluntary standards
for bike helmets.
It is our conclusion that people wearing helmets
equipped with these substandard buckles would probably be
protected in a fall from a bike, but possibly only during
the initial impact. Should the buckle break during that
first impact, the helmet could come off, leaving the
wearer's head vulnerable to injury in a second impact. For
this reason, we recommend that people not buy helmets with
the ITW Nexus TSK63 or Pinchguard buckles, until the
manufacturers remedy the problem. In all other respects,
the helmets using these buckles performed well in our tests.
We stressed early on in our article that any helmet -
even one with a defective buckle - is better than no helmet
at all. To quote the article:
"If you already own a helmet with one of the
buckles that sometimes failed, contact the
helmet manufacturer ... In the meantime,
continue to use the helmet. Wearing any
helmet reduces your likelihood of death or
serious brain injury when riding a bike."
Despite the clarity of this statement, the Protective
Headgear Manufacturers' Association and some of its members
have accused Consumers Union of discouraging helmet use
among bicycle riders. In his May 27 letter to me,
manufacturers' association President Chris Cox rightly
credits his own organization, consumer advocates, medical
experts and educators with raising awareness of the need for
bicycle helmets. But then he goes on: "We have made some
inroads, but there are still many people who are unaware of
helmets and the protection they can provide. Your article,
in a single motion, has
negated much of the progress we have made, by emphasizing a
possible failure in a small number of products, while never
mentioning that helmets are a vital part of the protective
equipment that every cyclist should use." (emphasis added).
For Mr. Cox's benefit, and for the benefit of all
others in the manufacturing community who seem to have
overlooked it in the article, let me again quote from the
"Wearing any helmet reduces your likelihood
of death or serious brain injury when riding
Consumers Union has long advocated the use of bicycle
helmets. We proudly number ourselves among the
organizations Mr. Cox credits with spreading the gospel
about this most-necessary piece of safety equipment for
cyclists. (And with a monthly pass-along readership of more
than 19 million, Consumer Reports reaches a wide audience.)
We would never discourage anyone from wearing a bicycle
helmet, even one with a suspect buckle.
What seems to have rubbed Mr. Cox and his constituents
the wrong way - and apparently blinded them to the truth -
is that we're advising buyers to select helmets that comply
with the standard, and are, therefore, demonstrably safer
than other helmets that don't. Now, rather than spending
what's necessary to make those questionable helmets safe,
the manufacturers have committed their resources to an
attack on an organization that has absolutely no financial
stake in whether their helmets pass our tests or not.
We provided helmet manufacturers with advance copy of
the June issue article, and we shared test data with
representatives from Bell and ITW Nexus who - at our
invitation - visited our labs on May 14. It was our hope
that these manufacturers might replace these defective
buckles, which mar otherwise excellent helmets. Instead,
Bell Sports has impugned our integrity by misrepresenting
what we wrote, and by disparaging our tests and testers.
Bell's Director of Quality Assurance, Dean McGuffee, has
even denied publicly that his company was given our test
We have asked the U.S. Consumer Product Safety
Commission to investigate the failure of these buckles. We
await its findings. Meanwhile, we continue to encourage
anyone considering buying a new bicycle helmet to chose one
whose buckle type consistently passed our tests. And we
again call upon the manufacturing community to correct its
defects. At Consumers Union, we've done our part for
safety's sake. Manufacturers, please do yours.
R. David Pittle, Ph.D.
Vice President & Technical Director