Can we talk about helmets for a minute?

With the latest article that’s been going around about the side-impact helmet testing done by an insurance company in Sweden, many interesting conversations have been sparked on social media. The article has been shared by tons of people, and in a lot of different groups, and I’ve read through all of the comments almost obsessively. Safety equipment, and especially the standards by which such equipment is tested and certified, is very interesting to me. If you want to read the full study results, not just a summary, they can be found here. I’m not going to offer my interpretation of it… I feel like people can read and do that for themselves.

Y’all, I really like helmets.

I first started delving deeper into all of the helmet testing standards a few years ago after the KEP helmet controversy. The big issue that came out of that situation was whether or not riding helmets are designed, or required, to protect from secondary impact – ie if your head hits the pavement, and then the horse’s hoof hits your head, is the helmet still in reasonable enough condition to help protect your head from the secondary impact of the hoof? Short version: not necessarily.

I thought that was pretty interesting, and started researching all of the different testing standards, how they ran their studies, and exactly what they tested FOR. Do most of us actually know that? Probably not. We tend to just go “well, it’s approved, it must be safe!”. It’s definitely safer than no helmet at all, for sure. But one might not offer as much protection as another. And do we even know what “approved” really means?

EQ3shape
fancy tag… but what does it mean?

I was able to find a lot of information just via Google, and where I needed to fill in some gaps, I was generally able to do so via email. I heard back from all but 1 that I contacted… some sent me very basic “here is what we test for” type of information that wasn’t particularly useful, or was exactly what I’d already found via Google. Others sent me quite detailed information sheets and even videos of their test procedures. And then there’s good ol’ ASTM, who want you to pay $41 to buy the book (or PDF) of standards. Sigh. To be fair, they did answer some of my questions via email. Still, am I the only one who thinks this stuff should be very transparent and readily available?

For the most part I was very surprised to see what the majority of the testing standards actually cover. It’s FAR less than I would have imagined. Some are even just a simple *wham* to the top of the helmet and it either meets their criteria (whatever that may be) or it doesn’t. When’s the last time you got one nice, neat *wham* on the crown of your head? The most comprehensive, IMO, was definitely the SNELL testing standard, which is not a mandatory standard that any equestrian organization actually requires helmets to meet. Because of that, very few manufacturers have bothered submitting their helmets for SNELL testing at all. Even that standard isn’t perfect, and has some room for improvement as far as different types of impact that are more likely to occur during equestrian sports.

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Aside from just a general lack of information, or public knowledge if you will, about testing standards, there are also a lot of folks out there who don’t seem to understand what helmets really DO or how they work.

No, a helmet will not prevent you from sustaining a head injury. Just because you got a concussion while wearing X helmet does not mean the helmet didn’t do it’s job.

No, not all helmets are created equal. Just because they all passed whatever minimum testing requirement your federation requires certainly does not mean that one is just as good as the other. Think of cars and their safety ratings (which is a system we don’t have).

No, more expensive helmets ARE DEFINITELY NOT NECESSARILY BETTER.

Also, pretty much any helmet with extensive ventilation is likely to be at least a little bit (or a lot a bit) less durable under impact. It makes sense if you think about it. Any time you start putting holes in a structure, you introduce weakness to some degree. This doesn’t mean that a helmet with bigger vents offers less protection by default, but they require some additional engineering by the manufacturer to help increase the stability of the shell, which they may or may not have. Who knows… we don’t really test that. Paneled helmets (made of separate pieces that are glued together) also seem to be less likely to maintain their structural integrity beyond the initial impact. But again… not something that the majority of the current testing methods would encompass.

Of course, one of the single most important things when choosing the right helmet is the fit. If it doesn’t fit your head correctly, it won’t sit on your head correctly, which means it may shift and/or provide less protection during impact. Buying the best-rated helmet even though it doesn’t fit is just as bad as buying the lowest-rated helmet just because it’s fashionable.

I urge everyone who is interested in helmet safety to do some research for yourself, look into the testing methods, and see what impressions you come away with. Don’t just take ANY studies or “rubber stamp” certifications at face value… it’s very easy to be an educated consumer these days if you want to be.

12 thoughts on “Can we talk about helmets for a minute?

    1. Based on the information we have currently (which, IMO, is still insufficient), the EQ3. But it fits me really well. If it didn’t, my answer would change. 😉

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  1. I started looking into all of this stuff 100 years ago when they first made approved helmets mandatory (RIP custom Patey helmet). And from what I could tell, the standards needed to be approved were like the minimum. I agree, the MOST important thing is fit. And the Eq3 has the best technology so far, with it’s ability to give to the impact. I’m not rushing to throw out my many (many, many) helmets, but I do hope that other brands will start to incorporate that technology. (Hey, I like options!) I haven’t tried on the Eq3 yet, so not sure if it will fit me or not. But I’d like to add that to the repertoire, especially if/when I start jumping again.

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  2. I am glad you mentioned the fit, its probably one of the biggest things lots of people actually don’t seem to care enough about. I have refused to sell several people helmets because the ones they want don’t fit them properly. If you want it so bad, please go somewhere else because I don’t want that on my conscious!

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  3. I really hope that either the existing EQ3 will become available in more head shapes, or other helmet manufacturers will be able to start offering more options with the MIPS technology. Or – to your point in this post – really any sort of extra safety testing or tech that can make helmets more effective and protective.

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    1. I second this! I really like the MIPS technology, but the EQ3 doesn’t fit my head as well as my One K does. It’s not a bad fit by any means, but it’s not as snug and secure feeling. I’ll be sticking with my One K and hoping other companies start putting MIPS in!

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    2. Also agree. I’m a true long oval and it’s not even close. I’d imagine the more popular it gets/more demand there is for MIPS, they’ll be more likely to add more options.

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  4. I read through the study last week when the study came out and it was definitely an interesting read. I’ve been curious about the EQ3 since it first came out though I haven’t had a chance to try it on (though it seems like my local dover is carrying it as of last week). I’m just curious if this study with be the impetus for other manufacturers to start incorporating MIPS or more safety testing. Of course, I know all too well that helmets only do much and you don’t even need to hit your head to sustain one.

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  5. I’m hoping that MIPS becomes available in more helmet options in North America over the next few years. I tried the EQ3 helmet on, and in just a few minutes while I was talking to the rep I had a big pressure point on my forehead. I’m hopefully not going to need a new helmet for a few years but would like to have a MIPS option that fits my head when I do.

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  6. If you are looking for more information on how ASTM tests are actually performed, I’d recommend reaching out to actual testing labs: Intertek, Bureau Veritas, SGS, UL, etc. I don’t know how much help they will be to a consumer, but their job is to run those tests. They won’t tell you who performed the best because of non-disclosure agreements, but they run these day in and day out.

    Also, ASTM has technical commitee meetings that their sole purpose is to get together and write/re-vamp test methods. I know there are ones for soft goods/apparel (as I’ve been a part of other technical organizations testing method research committees) and they’re ALWAYS looking for input from consumers/brands, etc. on what is needed. It’s worth a shot to try to reach out to the F23 (Personal Protective Clothing and Equipment) committee officers and put your word out there. I know in the standardization organization I’m a part of they HAVE to address all concerns brought forward. Or, they also have a form you can fill out: https://www.astm.org/ASK_ASTM/index.html (but I’d also reach out to a named person if you really want to get heard).

    I’m all for consumers becoming more educated!

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