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How Do Bicycle Helmets Work?

Bike helmet and bike on the street and evening sun
Foryoui3/Shutterstock

It’s hard to imagine that a few inches of plastic can protect your head from life-threatening physical trauma, right? But somehow, bicycle helmets (and all helmets for that matter) are able to do this time and again. How are bicycle helmets made and how do they provide such incredible protection? Let’s look into it.

The History of the Helmet

People have been falling off of bicycles since their invention in the early 1800s. But it wasn’t until the 1880s when bicycling started to become a popular sport; hence, riders began seeking out a form of protection for their inevitable falls.

The earliest helmet models were pith helmets, which were made from a soft, crushable material that formed a dome shape slightly above the head. These broke instantly upon impact but nevertheless provided a little protection against the asphalt and gravel that was starting to cover roads. However, around the turn of the century, cyclists started using strips of leather-covered padding woven to create a ring around and above the head. These were referred to as “hairnets” and used up until the late 1970s.

Then, in 1975, a company named Bell Auto Parts, recognizing the steady increase in head injuries among bikers, created the first real bicycle helmet, which was quite similar to what we use today. It was made of a thick, foam-like material covered with a hard plastic shell. While this design has continued to be improved upon since then, the basic premise remains the same.

In 1984, The American National Standards Institute created standards for helmets that helped regulate effective and ineffective products on the market. Their decision to raise the quality of protective headgear opened the door for new and improved designs. By the 1990s, most helmets were made with polystyrene foam and a polycarbonate shell.

Today, helmets come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are designed to cater to individual needs. For example, bicycle helmets are designed to be aerodynamic for racers and contain strategic holes for improved airflow without sacrificing protection.

The Science Behind the Helmet

Helmets are uniquely designed to protect the wearer based on their specific activity. For example, skateboarding helmets are built to withstand a minimal level of impact, while bicycle helmets are made to withstand a single high-impact blow.

The shell of a bicycle helmet will crack upon impact and disperse the energy from the blow across the entire surface. The force then moves to the polystyrene foam layer, which will compress to further absorb the blow. A high-quality helmet can reduce the impact time to your skull by a full six milliseconds, which may seem small, but can be the difference between minimal damage and a cracked skull.

Because bicycle helmets are designed to break, you should get a new helmet every time you experience a bad fall. Even if the helmet doesn’t look badly damaged, the foam may be compressed due to the impact of the fall and may be unable to protect you in a future accident.

Are Helmets Worth It?

The answer is a resounding yes. Studies have repeatedly shown that riders with helmets can decrease their risk of a head or brain injury by over 80 percent. Of course, the best way to avoid these injuries is to ride safely on the road; however, like the seatbelt, the helmet can protect you when an accident does happen. You may not need it, but if you do, you’ll be glad it’s there.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Listverse and Introvert, Dear, and she is currently working on her first novel. When she's not breaking down complex topics into readable material, she loves to stay on the lighter side and blog about Disney and Universal parks on Taylored Trips Blog. Read Full Bio »