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Video: Airbag helmets more effective at preventing concussion, say researchers

Stanford team pitch Hövding airbag against conventional foam helmet

Researchers at one of the world’s top universities say that airbag helmet systems can protect cyclists from concussion up to six times more effectively than more conventional helmets.

A team led by bioengineer David Camarillo at Stanford University, ranked third in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, performed drop tests on an airbag helmet made by Swedish company Hövding and compared the results with those from a traditional foam helmet.

Camarillo, who has himself sustained concussion on two occasions after coming off his bike, said: “Foam bike helmets can and have been proven to reduce the likelihood of skull fracture and other, more severe brain injury.

“But, I think many falsely believe that a bike helmet is there to protect against a concussion. That’s not true.”

Launched in 2010, the Hövding airbag helmet, available in Europe but not yet sold in the US, is stowed in a collar worn around the neck and is deployed when a sensor detects a potential collision, inflating through the use of a gas canister.

The Stanford team, who have published their findings in the September 27 edition of Annals of Biomedical Engineering, carried out the tests in accordance with US federal standards for cycle helmets, dropping the helmets, placed on a dummy head, from heights of between 0.8 and 2 metres.

Postdoctoral research student Mehmet Kurt said: “We conducted drop tests, which are typical federal tests to assess bicycle helmets, and we found that air bag helmets, with the right initial pressure, can reduce head accelerations five to six times compared to a traditional bicycle helmet.”

In testing the Hövding helmet, the researchers pre-inflated it to a maximum pressure, which Camarillo cautioned meant that the test results might not reflect performance in a real life scenario.

“As our paper suggests, although air bag helmets have the potential to reduce the acceleration levels that you experience during a bicycle accident, it also suggests that the initial pressure that your air bag helmet has is very critical in reducing these acceleration levels,” he said.

He added: “There are many theories as to why concussion happens, but the predominant one is that, as your head rotates very quickly, the soft tissue within your brain contorts and, essentially, what you get is a stretching of the axons, which are the wiring of the brain.

“If our research and that of others begins to provide more and more evidence that this air bag approach might be significantly more effective, there will be some major challenges in the U.S. to legally have a device available to the public.”

The team now plans to test the airbag helmet for issues including its effect on rotational acceleration and the forces encountered by the head during impact, as well as examining its performance when dropped from a greater height.

Earlier this year, Hövding teamed up with the London Cycling Campaign to launch an app activated by a handlebar mounted button that enables cyclists to send an email to the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, to log unsafe locations for cycling.

Video: Airbag helmet firm launches safety app for London cyclists

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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