Cheap or Expensive: All Helmets are Created Equal

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute recently asked a “well-known, reputable U.S. test lab” to compare the performance of helmets from the upper and lower ends of the price range. The tests were conducted using standard ASTM/CPSC methods at both regular and low impacts. The testers found virtually no difference in performance between helmets purchased from Target and Wal-Mart priced at under $20, and those purchased from specialty retailers priced at $150 and up.

From the BHSI website:

The results are a testimony to the effectiveness of our legally-required CPSC helmet standard. Although our sample was small, the testing indicates that the consumer can shop for a bicycle helmet in the US market without undue concern about the impact performance of the various models on sale, whatever the price level. The most important advice is to find a helmet that fits you well so that it will be positioned correctly when you hit.

More at BHSI

19 Responses to “Cheap or Expensive: All Helmets are Created Equal”

  • Mike says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if this were true of more products in our lives? Imagine knowing any of the available television sets, water heaters, blenders or clothes dryers were indistinguishable in terms of performance… Selection criteria would melt down to style, price and preference.

    I was aware of this phenomenon (if not this specific test) in bike helmets when I bought my Bell Citi last year. It took almost all the stress out of the process… although I still ended up with a helmet that looks ridiculous on me. That may be another characteristic every model shares, however.

  • Doug R. says:

    In my motorcycle world, “All helmets are not created equal”! I only buy full face, Snell Foundation approved helmets! My price range is between $350.00-$600.00. I buy the Giro brand bicycle helmets, MTB styles, and I usually hunt down a good deal for around $65.00-$90.00. I am glad that they are all of the same protective quality no matter what a person’s budget. I wish computers were all the same and the prices were low! : ) Dougman

  • Andrew says:

    I got a Specialized helmet for $30 at the bike show last year because it looked slightly less goofy on me than most. And then I lost the visor, and now it looks at least as goofy, haha. Oh well.

  • Logan says:

    I think its also important to choose a helmet that is comfortable and you enjoy the style in the way it looks. My partner hated her helmet fit and color and this led to her not using it occasionally. On the UC Davis campus this can also seen with students riding around with a helmet in their basket and not on their head. My partner finally found a helmet she could identify with in the nutcase brand. Sure it was a bit expensive at $60 now she wears it all the time and its still cheaper than a trip to the ER.

  • Tim K says:

    This is not new news. Most cyclists and bike shop owners have know this for years. What the test fails to note are the benefits in fit and function that Logan points out, plus comfort. For me there was a big difference between my $45 helmet and my $120 helmet. The more expensive one not only fit and looked better, it kept me cooler. Being able to keep the sweat our of my eyes (or some of it) and keeping the temp of my head down lead to 50 miles rides, then centuries and now beyond. “Safety” may be the same but it is not the same as performance.

  • John says:

    I’d be interested in knowing how the Nutcase/skater style helmet performed compared to a “normal” shaped bicycle helmet. The report made no identification of the actual brand or types of helmets outside of cost. I want to like Nutcase, but I don’t have any faith in it’s lack of front or back crush thickness. Nutcase doesn’t offer up much more information themselves than, “we’re pretty!”

  • peteathome says:

    For years the major difference between low end and high end helmets was ventilation. They all performed up to the standards, but the cheaper ones could give you heat stroke. There was a period where the high end ones appeared to offer LESS protection as they were so over ventilated / full of holes some started not meeting the standards.

    Since then, the main change has been better retention systems in the higher end helmets. Supposably they are less likely to shift position as you smack the road, protecting you for the second bounce. And a lot of the cheaper ones are hard to adjust and get fitted right. Without proper fitting a helmet’s protection is dramatically reduced. even though the foam is up to standards.

  • Rex in Phoenix says:

    I started cycling last year after a 10+ year absence and bought a ~$20 Bell Adrenaline at Wal-Mart that I’m really happy with. Observations:

    – It had a new strap system that was much easier to adjust than older ones. Now it looks like the majority of them on the shelf at Wal-Mart have something similar.

    – The strap system, while remaining comfortable, makes the helmet *seem* like it’s not going to shift during a high-speed descent to the pavement. Fortunately I haven’t tested this, but I replaced my 10 year-old’s helmet with something similar because his was always sliding around his head no matter what we did with the maze of straps.

    – It’s a bit bulbous compared to some nicer helmets but IMO the visor helps in that department. I look like a dork anyway.

    – Ventilation seems OK to me. Better than I remember my helmet 10 years ago. I’m sure some of the more expensive ones are even better.

    – A friend recently took a header (from losing control after being deliberately strafed by a car) in a Bell helmet that was a more expensive than mine but in a similar ballpark. It clearly saved his life or saved him from brain damage. It was appropriately crushed. This isn’t an advertisement for Bell, as the study indicates other approved helmets would have been comparable; it just happened to be a Bell.

  • doug in seattle. says:

    I’m surprised because I’ve heard that the advanced design of the expensive helmets, featuring more vent than helmet, somewhat compromised their effectiveness.

  • 2whls3spds says:

    Okay so they meet the CSPC standards, which are minimal at best. Lets see some destructive real world type testing to prove they actually do what they are supposedly designed to do, using telemetric head forms and various crash scenarios.

    Aaron

  • Doug R. says:

    Send some helmets from low and high ends to Snell Foundation for testing!

  • Alan says:

    @Doug R.

    I agree. I’d love to see Snell test some bicycle helmets. I’m sure none of them would be given a passing grade…

    Alan

  • 2whls3spds says:

    @ Doug R and Alan

    I have a Snell approved helmet! IIRC the original Bell Biker was a Snell approved helmet. Unfortunately the way I understand it is that Snell will test to the same standards as CSPC or a standard the manufacturer specifies. The difference being that Snell will test a certain percentage of helmets via destructive testing, then issue their sticker based on the results.

    What needs to happen is that the standards need to be raised from the basic CSPC to an actual real world test like is done with automobile seat belts, airbags, etc. Of course that might raise the prices on the helmets to the point where they would cost more than the bike…

    My current helmet is a Bell Citi or Metro, I don’t recall which, but it is comfortable and serves it’s purpose I suppose.

    Aaron

  • charles says:

    I’ll second the statement that none of the current helmets would be given a passing grade by Snell. As for the Nutcase helmets, I think they probably have a better shape and appear to have a less grabby surface than most of the multiple slot ones with the useless “aero” FTD tail.
    I’ve seen some of those high priced racer looking helmets and they don’t appear to have much material in them. I’ll bet an old football or hockey helmet would be better in every way.

  • James says:

    There’s no real argument that any of the more expensive helmet models claim to protect any better than less expensive models. Manufacturers are required to meet certain safety specifications and it’s no surprise that they meet those and go no further regardless of price. Helmets, like any other bike component/accessory will be priced based on how much they can be sold for, and premiums can be charged for things like fit, weight, and style without having any impact on the ability of the helmet to perform to a testing specification.

  • PJ says:

    I have always worn a road helmet when commuting in high traffic areas. No they don’t look very cool but they are they do give me a feeling of not having a helmet on more than anything else I can find.
    Lazer helmets have been my choice due to their roll fit system that makes adjustment a breeze even when the helmet is on your head. Plus they are Belgian which for some reason makes me happy.
    PJ

  • Doug R. says:

    I wonder where I put that old “Pop Warner” football helmet?

  • Joseph E says:

    According to the article at http://www.helmets.org/testbycost.htm, they test the helmets by a 2 meter drop (6 ft drop) onto a flat or curved hammer.

    So helmets are only required to protect you from falling over? What happens if you crash at 20 mph, or get hit by a car?

    Those tests don’t sound very helpful. No wonder even the $15 Target helmet passed!

    In comparison, Football helmets have been shown to be poor and protecting against concussion injuries, and this is for guys running on grass, not bicycling on concrete.

    The standards are way too low to be useful. I will continue riding without a helmet until I see some information that proves they work.

  • Jack says:

    I had already seen this report and it made me feel good about some bikes and helmets we gave away at Christmas. We gave away 31 bikes and most had $10 helmets from WalMart. I was concerned about the safety of these helmets but this report has made me feel better about our choice.

 
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