This article sets out to outline the different standards and construction of bicycle helmets. This article also sets out reasons why one should wear a helmet.
The first bicycle helmets were only worn by racers. These "hairnet" helmets were made of leather and really only protected against cuts and scrapes. Before the 1970's Americans viewed bicycles as children toys that did not require safety equipment. The 1970's brought about an increase of cycling in the United States and bicycle helmets began being offered to the public. These first mass produced helmets were of a three part construction - a hard polycarbonate shell, an expanded polystyrene foam mid-layer and a soft foam inner layer. The polystyrene foam layer is designed to compress in the event of a serious collision and absorb some of the impact energy. These early helmets had no holes for ventilation. Some helmets sold during the 1980's had soft cloth covers over the polystyrene. One advantage of a hard shell is that in the event of a crash the helmet will slide along the ground which helps to deflect the impact away from the skull. At the end of the 1980's a new technology was developed that applied the shell during the polystyrene molding process. This procedure allowed the development of lighter, better ventilated helmets throughout the 90's and 2000's. Recently high-end helmets have begun to incorporate carbon fiber re-enforcement in the shell, even further reducing weight.
At the time bicycle helmets began coming out during the 1970's there were no standards set for their performance. There was the SNELL foundation standard for motorcycle helmets, but this was not really applicable to helmets for bicycle use. The first standard for bicycle helmets was established in 1985; the SNELL B85. This standard was refined in 1990 and 1995 which became the B90 and B95 standards, respectively. Strangely, helmet standards have become less restrictive over time. Also, the number of helmets adhering to the standards has decreased. This is most likely because of the increasing popularity of ultra-light weight and ventilated helmets. Some experts also argue that helmets that adhere to the standards in place are really too strong to do their job. The polystyrene foam in bicycle helmets is supposed to be compressed by the force of an impact. In most crash scenarios where the helmet is protecting the wearer from more than superficial injury the foam layer fractures instead of compressing as it should.
While there is debate about the necessity of standards for helmet impact resistance, there is no sound argument for not wearing a helmet. Any helmet will protect you more than no helmet, and wearing one will not increase your chances of injury. The slight discomfort of wearing a helmet is far offset by its lifesaving abilities. Many avid cyclists, when asked about helmet use, reply that they certainly would be dead had they not always worn their helmets.
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