According to the Centers for Disease Control, bicyclists run a greater risk of accident-related injury than automobile drivers. But with the exception of juvenile riders in select states, there are no widespread laws requiring cyclists to wear helmets. And even if there were, there’s ongoing debate about whether they’re effective in preventing concussions.
That’s why some parts of Europe have focused on building—and wearing—a better helmet alternative. Researchers at Stanford University recently published a study in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering that offers compelling evidence that an airbag worn around your neck is more effective than a conventional helmet in lessening impact to the brain by a factor of five.
To obtain data, the study’s authors compared acceleration forces between crash test dummy heads wearing regular helmets and those who sported a pocket around their neck that deployed an airbag upon impact. The dummies were dropped from heights of up to 6.5 feet to see how forces were transmitted depending on the angle and contortion of their heads. The greater cushioning of the inflated bags was superior to the hard-shell helmets traditionally used by cyclists.
There is one asterisk: The study demonstrated a high efficacy of safety by using air bags that were properly pressurized prior to testing. In “real world” cases, the chemical trigger that expands the bag may not necessarily result in optimal pressure to prevent injury.
Further research will be needed to see how the airbags might protect the wearer against the wide variety of head injuries that can occur when the body impacts the ground in different ways. The helmets are now available in some European countries; if research continues to be promising, you may soon see them in the United States.