For years, the inflatable bike helmet has been sending ripples across the web. A helmet that is basically invisible and then inflates only when you need it? It sounds too good to be true. But researchers at Stanford have been studying this style of inflatable helmet's efficacy, and the results are promising. These are actually better at preventing concussions than traditional helmets are.
"Foam bike helmets can and have been proven to reduce the likelihood of skull fracture and other, more severe brain injury," says David Camarillo, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford in a . "But, I think many falsely believe that a bike helmet is there to protect against a concussion. That's not true." While some experts that cyclists are at risk for conditions like CTE, Camarillo says he's gotten two concussions while riding his own bike.
The principle behind these helmet air bags is simple. The airbag comes as a sock that the cyclist wears around his or her neck. When it senses a potential collision—through the use of internal electronics—it pops up around the wearer's neck and head, providing a cushion that can be larger, softer, and more obstructive than a traditional bike helmet because it only has to be around a biker's head in the moments before a crash instead of all the time.
Camarillo's team compared these air helmets to regular helmets by attaching them to dummy heads and dropping those heads onto a metal platform from various heights. With "the right initial pressure," Mehmet Kurt, one of the study's authors says, a Hövding "can reduce head accelerations five to six times compared to a traditional bicycle helmet."
has been selling these inflatable helmets in parts of Europe, but they've been slow to take hold the United States for a number of reasons. For one, the tech needs to be proven to be reliable on a massive scale; Camarillo's team noted that if the airbag only partially inflates, the head will be dropped onto the ground from a higher point and increase the chance of injury. That's not to mention the price. A Hövding only works once and costs over $300, though that's down from .
There are still challenges to overcome, and more testing needs to be done to see if inflatable helmets are good at protecting against other nasty effects of crashing your bike, like full-on skull fractures. But this research shows that these kinds of helmets can be more effective than traditional helmets at least in some respects. And, of course, they will always be more effective than no helmet at all.