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How Safe Is Your Helmet?

How safe is your helmet? We investigate.

Ski Helmet Safety Standards Explored

Kevin Pearce was practicing a cab double cork in Park City, Utah on New Year’s Eve when he landed sideways and smashed the front of his head on the bottom of the half-pipe. Kevin suffered a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for a week. An excellent documentary called The Crash Reel follows Kevin’s quest to compete in the 2010 Olympics against nemesis Shaun White and follows his slow and difficult recovery from brain injury; learning to walk, talk and eat again. The film offers a heart-warming insight into the support that Kevin got from his family and documents Kevins desire to get back on a snowboard despite his doctor’s advice; that even a small blow to the head could be enough to kill him. The resounding take home message from the film is to always wear a helmet but how much protection does a ski or snowboard helmet offer?

Michael Schumacher suffered a severe head injury and was put into a coma on December 29 2013 as a result hitting his head on a rock while travelling at a relatively low speed. Michael was skiing on a patch of snow between two pisted runs with visible and hidden rocks. This type of fall could happen to anyone so how can we ensure we buy a helmet that offers the best possible protection?

Helmet Testing Methods

Helmet testing methods are surprising. There are two legal European standards; Class A and Class B and this should always be stated on a label inside the helmet alongside the text “EN 1077:2007”. There are two elements to the classification; coverage and impact protection. Class B helmets have to provide coverage to the top and rear of the head but they don’t have to cover the ears. Class A helmets protect the top, rear and side of the head including ears. To be certified as Class A, a helmet must be able to withstand impact when dropped from a height of 75cm. To be certified Class B, the helmet only needs to withstand impact from a height of 37.5cm.

Shopping for a helmet can be a minefield because packaging doesn’t provide information on the testing methods that have been used. Often the features listed on the packaging relate to design rather than safety e.g. air vents, built in headphones. The majority of recreational ski and snowboard helmets do not have ear coverage so they are certified as Class B. However, potentially some of these helmets could survive drop tests of higher than 37.5cm but there is no way of knowing this from the packaging. One helmet could provide more protection than the other or all could provide equally low protection of just a 37.5cm drop but this information is not readily available to the consumer. Regardless, adults are obviously taller than the 37.5cm and 75cm testing heights which raises questions as to whether the minimum standards are high enough.

To meet the European standard of “EN 1077:2007”, helmets are drop tested onto ice/snow. They are not tested on natural obstacles of a mountain such as rocks or trees. Arguably, they should also have to withstand these tests.

The testing process involves dropping the helmet vertically onto the top of the head area. However most people do not fall directly upside down with the top of their head vertically dropping to ground, most people fall at an angle. Safety standards do not involve testing helmets dropped at different oblique angles.

As Whitelines magazine recently reported, head injuries from general skiing and snowboarding have reduced by 50% due to an increase in helmet use. A helmet helps to protect the skull which may or may not prevent death. However, when a person falls, the speed and force of this shakes the brain around inside the skull. This can cause concussion or a more serious traumatic brain injury. Swedish neurosurgeon Hans Von Holst worked with technology researcher Peter Halldin to develop MIPS technology to better protect the brain against injury. MIPS technology imitates the brains way of protecting itself by giving the helmet a no-friction layer to absorb energy created by an oblique blow to the head (falling at an angle). Many retailers tend to stock bottom and mid-range helmets so tracking down a MIPS helmet is not always easy. Ski and snowboard helmets with MIPS technology are listed here.