Helmet Technology to Save Your Brain

Helmet Technology to Save Your Brain

Not all helmets are created equal

Moore’s law describes the advancement of technology over time. According to this theory, the level of technology should double every year thanks to the work done by generations past. The law has proved true for electronics for several decades, but since the first EPS foam helmet was introduced to the cycling world, there’s been little more than increased ventilation and “bold new graphics” for helmet technology. Recently, however, helmet companies have been back to the drawing board to protect the most important piece of cargo on any mountain bike ride: the gray matter in the rider’s skull.



EPS foam is the standard for helmet technology. In a crash, it gives your skull and brain the precious milliseconds needed to slow down and reduce the force of a major impact. Trouble is, it requires a pretty significant impact to activate. If you’ve ever felt the inside of your bike helmet, you know that it’s far from a cushy pillow. This technology was designed to save your brain from catastrophic injury in the event of a major crash, but that’s where the protection ends. Research and inadvertent field testing show that even with a properly designed and certified EPS foam helmet, major injuries can occur as a result of even minor crashes.


Low-speed impacts: In order to meet the certification requirements for high-speed impacts, helmet-makers have been forced to design helmets that are simply too stiff to absorb energy from lesser impacts. It’s essentially a pass/fail system that has created helmets that are designed to protect us from the worst impacts yet do very little in the case of smaller impacts.

Think about the last time you crashed and hit your helmet. Chances are it was one of those low-speed impacts that may have just “rung your bell.” If you’ve never experienced the feeling, you’re one of the lucky ones. If you have experienced one of these low-speed impacts, you know that it may still result in a serious headache. The latest research shows that even these minor concussions, which happen much more frequently than the catastrophic high- speed ones, can cause some pretty serious effects on the brain.

Rotational or angular impacts: Most of the medical community agrees that angular impacts are the ones responsible for concussions and both minor and major brain injuries. These impacts happen when the force applied results in a rotational movement of the skull, causing shearing, tearing, compressions or rotation of the brain. Almost enough to lose your lunch over, eh?

The trouble with these impacts is, until recently, they’ve not been tested for helmet certification. The experiments for testing and certification looked more like a weight being dropped straight on top of the helmet to measure the force. Any mountain biker who’s had a crash that involved a helmet will tell you a straight-on impact to the top of the helmet is probably the least likely scenario.

Helmet-13The same game: Bicycle and motorcycle accidents are very similar in terms of force applied to the brain. Despite the misconception that motorcycle riders are at higher risk, bicycle riders are just as much at risk for brain injury.



If rotational and angular impacts are far and away the most likely cause for injury, why do we stick with old, traditional helmet designs that do nothing to protect against these impacts? The most cutting-edge helmet-makers aren’t sitting on their heels; they’re designing systems that reduce the energy transfer on these low-speed and rotational hits.

MIPS: In 2001, five biomechanical specialists in Stockholm, Sweden, decided to combine their technical and medical expertise to focus on reducing and preventing head injuries. Have you looked inside a new-generation helmet and seen the thin yellow layer of plastic? That’s MIPS. It’s a thin, low-friction layer that separates the shell from the liner and allows the liner to slide relative to the skull in the event of an angular crash. The relatively new MIPS technology is not a helmet brand; instead, the Swedish scientists license the MIPS technology to manufacturers who add it to the helmet during production.

Helmet-0  Helmet-1Helmet-2Less than you think: MIPS is often misunderstood as another layer of foam or padding. Instead it is a minimal plastic liner that allows the helmet to slide during rotational impacts while still staying snug on the riders head.

The MIPS system does not improve performance with all low-speed impacts, but provides an extra level of protection against rotational forces. While the MIPS technology can’t be added to an existing helmet, it seems to be a pretty simple upgrade to make during the manufacturing process. A helmet that’s equipped with MIPS seems to average an added retail cost of about $20 compared to a non-MIPS-equipped model.

Helmet-10Helmet-9More protection for trail riders: 6D’s new trail helmet sports the same ODS technology as the full-face version in a smaller package. It will be available this spring.

6D ODS technology: The 6D Omni- Directional Suspension (ODS) system seeks to reduce the energy of both low-speed and rotational impact forces. This system uses a series of hourglass-shaped rubber bumpers placed between two separate layers of EPS foam. These elastomeric isolation dampers provide a progressive rate at which the helmet compresses. In the event of a small or mid-size impact, the dampers activate before the rest of the EPS foam does, making it possible to displace energy at a much lower threshold than with the foam alone. Thanks to the hourglass shape of these bumpers, they also allow the outer layer to float relative to the inner layer.

helmet_new_1936Don’t get caught without these new technologies.




What led you to build this system, and was there anything else on the market at the time?

The technology was slowly adopted until concussion news hit the mainstream in the last five years.

Both MIPS and 6D set out to mitigate the risk, because the helmets were not doing their jobs adequately.Helmet-6

What’s the biggest challenge as a helmet designer to promote this technology?

Education is the largest challenge—although there is CE testing, there’s no accountability for rotational impact. The pass/fail system currently in place allows some helmets to barely pass, and some widely exceed the standards; there’s no way to know how much protection you’re getting beyond that. Space and time to slow down are the keys to protection, so small compact shells are a serious problem when it comes to protection. We aren’t afraid to build our helmets a little bigger if it means more protection for the rider.

The technology is only available on 6D helmets. The 6D ATB-1 has been available since last spring, and word is the trail/ enduro version will be available shortly. Our test of the 6D-ATB1 resulted in a five-star perfect rating from the MBA crew last season. The helmet is slightly larger and not as lightweight as some other offerings, but if the added protection from the 6D technology delivers what it promises, we’re happy to add a few ounces to the weight of the lid.


6D’s Elastomeric Isolation Dampers

The 6D key: The “shearing layer” is one of the most valuable features of the 6D system, which also yielded energy absorption.

6D was recently awarded a $250,000 grant to develop their technologies in helmets for the NFL to mitigate the concussion problem that’s well-documented in NFL players.

The new helmets use material solutions to solve energy transfer problems, the same way bicycle and motorcycle helmets do.

Out of 125 teams who submitted technologies, only five were chosen, and 6D was among the chosen ones. Since NFL helmets have a design constraint of 25 millimeters of space to work with, this may be the largest challenge 6D has been faced with. However, the new technologies show promise and may save the gray matter of many football players in addition to riders.

Helmet-12Here’s why:

—Gravity creates the largest energy force, unless you hit a street sign or a tree. This means that since gravity is a constant, it doesn’t really matter how fast you’re traveling.

—The horizontal forces created in a crash are not the greatest concern in most instances, so even trail mountain biking can create the same forces as a motorcycle crash at greater speeds.

—Bike helmets must mitigate these tremendous forces while adhering to the weight and cooling constraints cyclists demand. Moto helmets have the luxury of including 4 pounds’ worth of material to protect your brain. Bike helmets must protect from the same forces with less than 16 ounces of material.


Helmet technology really all comes down to dissipation of energy over time. Building in safety features that give your skull precious milliseconds to slow down is key. We expect to see several variations on these technologies in the future. It simply makes sense to use your brain to develop the technology of the helmet that it’s in.


Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun. Start a subscription by clicking here or calling (800) 767-0345.

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