It’s Time for a New Helmet

International Helmet Awareness Day

When I had my accident in January, I don’t know if I hit my head. Given how many other things broke, I decided it was time to retire my helmet, which was already a couple of years old. Since then, I’ve been wearing my Charles Owen skull cap. Honestly, I can’t remember when I bought it — I just know it’s never been in a fall — so I’ve been planning to buy a new helmet and thought I’d take advantage of the discounts offered during National Helmet Awareness Day, organized by Riders4Helmets.com. Many tack shops are offering a 20% discount; I noticed that Dover Saddlery says “up to” 30% depending on the brand and model.

This year, the 9th annual event takes place August 18-19th. Twenty two manufacturers are offering discounts on their helmets for the 2018 National Helmet Awareness Day. Participating brands include Champion, Charles Owen, Dublin, EQ3 by Back On Track Canada, Eurohunter, Gatehouse, GPA, International Riding Helmets (IRH), Jin Stirrup, JPC, Kask, KEP Italia, Kwesta, LAS helmets (Leslie Sutcliffe UK), One K, Ovation, Samshield America, Tipperary, Trauma Void, Troxel, Uvex and Zilco.

How do Helmets Protect your Head?

In my research, I came across a very interesting article on Eventing Nation — Craniology. This is a must read to understand how helmets do — and don’t — protect your head. While most people believe that helmets can prevent concussions, in fact ASTM doesn’t test for their ability to protect against Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and concussions. What they are able to do is:

  1. Help protect your head from being cut by something sharp or jagged. In safety tests, the helmet must prevent a sharp object, designed to resemble a horse’s hoof, from reaching the helmet’s lining.

  2. Slide. Your helmet’s outer shell is smooth to allow it to slide along the ground or another surface, giving your head more stopping room if there is some available.

  3. Reduce the force on your skull on impact.The inner liner of your helmet is responsible for keeping your skull safe when it hits the ground or another object. The inner liner is made of hard foam (think of a Styrofoam cooler) that crushes when the helmet experiences a hard impact. When the liner crushes, it gives your head an extra .003 second to stop on hard ground, and it provides an extra .007 or .008 of a second to stop on a softer surface like turf. Assuming your helmet meets ASTM standards, the extra stopping time is designed to keep the force on your skull under 300g (or 300 times the force of gravity). 300g is the internationally accepted threshold for serious brain injury. According to the National Bicycle Safety Institute, a force of 300g is approximately the equivalent of your head hitting a hard, flat surface like a wall, while traveling in a straight line at 14 miles per hour – it’s a lot of force.

Helmet testing
Often, damage to the helmet can’t be seen by looking at the outside. However, when the internal liner is crushed, it no longer protects your head.
Helmet performance after four blows
Research conducted by University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences researcher Carl Mattacola, Ph.D., ATC, in 2015 illustrates why it is important to replace your helmet after a fall. In this example, the protectiveness of the lining is compromised after just two blows. However, since you cannot tell how much internal damage your helmet has received, why take the chance?

So Which Helmet Protects your Head Best?

The jury is still out. Scientists are still working to pinpoint the biomechanics that cause TBIs so they can design helmets that influence those biomechanics. Currently, in the US, the standards that outlines helmet performance is designed by ASTM. In Europe and Australia they use Snell E2001, E2016 and ARB HS 2012 standards, which may be more stringent that US standards. However not all helmets are available in all countries and even if a helmet meets the Snell standard, if it’s not ASTM certified you may not be able to use it to compete in the US.

One of the advancements being talked about is MIPS technology which uses a slip-plane system that moves inside the helmet. This layer is designed to rotate inside the helmet with the intent to potentially slow or reduce the amount of energy transferred to or from the head. Science tells us that if we can reduce the strains associated with rotational acceleration, we might reduce the risk and severity of brain injury.

MIPS
MIPS technology is supposed to protect your head better but early versions of MIPS enabled equestrian helmets never caught on.

The helmet I was wearing when I fell was the Devonaire Aegus Matrix, which used MIPS. I bought my first one in 2013 and was surprised that the helmet never gained traction. People complained that it had a “bubble head” appearance, which I personally feel is the trade off between more protective liners (more concussion absorbing ability) and smaller, sleeker, low profile helmets. Me? I’ll be a bubble head any day! This was quite an affordable helmet so I’m sorry that Devonaire discontinued the helmet. Now, a MIPS helmet is the Back on Track EQ3 Helmet. It’s now available in the US for $249.

Anecdotally, I’ve read that MIPS only works with a very tightly fitting helmet (no hair tucked up and chin strap tight). There are also helmet theories that a user’s hair also acts as a MIPS system in current helmet technologies.

So which helmet is best?

Looking at the research from Dr. Mattacola, it shows that current helmet technology is quite good at  protecting riders against straight line impacts that could result in death. As mentioned above, he conducted research that tested which helmets offer protection after more than one impact. Since Dr. Mattacola is primarily working with jockeys, the helmets he tested were skull caps.

Best performing helmets
Of the 5 helmets tested, the Charles Owen, J3 performed the best. It was the only helmet that kept the force on the rider’s head below 300g for all four simulated falls. The other helmets kept the force on the rider’s head under 300g for the first two simulated falls, but the force exceeded 300g for the second two simulated falls. The test was fairly draconian in that it placed the impact on the identical part of the helmet all four times which would probably be unusual in real life.

Helmets that meet the Snell e2001 or E2016 include the Charles Owen 4*, Gatehouse HS1, and the Parkgate ProTector V3.

Tune in tomorrow to find out which helmet I end up ordering!

 

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2 thoughts on “It’s Time for a New Helmet

  1. Gads. I wish I’d read this earlier…it’s too late now to order. But it’s amazingly coincidental…I fell off my horse last month (and blogged about it on my blog, thehorsemadscientist.blogspot.com

    While I didn’t hit my head…I’d been trained how to fall when I was a kid…still, the first thing to hit my mind (after I hit the ground) was, I’m so glad I was wearing my helmet.

    I know a lot of folks (I’m sorry to say it, but it seems to be mostly Western riders who smirk when they see me wearing one) think I’m a chicken for wearing a helmet. wellllll I’m old enough now. My antlers are big enough for me to say, yeah, you’re right. I AM a chicken.
    One with her brains all unscrambled, thanks to a helmet.

    Yup, they do look silly. (but, in my opinion, not so dumb looking as a derby or a top hat). They can be hot and itchy. You don’t look ‘cool’.
    But seeing that I have only one brain, and I really, really like how it works, I’m going to keep it protected, ugly or not.

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