Stanford University Testing Airbag Bike Helmets That Could Save Lives
Researchers at Stanford University have been investigating the effectiveness of a new type of bike helmet that uses an inflatable airbag to protect against concussion.
Bioengineer David Camarillo believes that although wearing a bike helmet is better than not at all, improvements could be made on the traditional design.
This led Camarillo and his team to test a relatively new airbag design, which is worn as a soft pocket around the neck and pops up like a car’s airbag when it senses a potential collision.
Although originally developed to improve the aesthetic look of a helmet, which deters many from wearing them, the new design also seemed to help protect the head better than a traditional helmet in the team’s tests.
Using drop tests—the typical federal tests used to assess bicycle helmets—the team found that their airbag helmet could reduce head accelerations by five to six times greater than a traditional helmet.
Camarillo believes that the main reason for the improved protection is the large size of the airbag helmet compared to traditional foam bike helmets, meaning it is softer and cushions the impact more.
However, there is a possible downside. The researchers pre-inflated the airbag helmet to the maximum amount before each drop in order to achieve these results, with researcher Mehmet Kurt commenting that, “As our paper suggests, although airbag helmets have the potential to reduce the acceleration levels that you experience during a bicycle accident, it also suggests that the initial pressure that your airbag helmet has is very critical in reducing these acceleration levels.”
If the helmet doesn’t fill up with the maximum amount of air the results could be very different, and rather than offer more protection it could actually cause the head to hit the ground with much more force than with a traditional foam helmet.
In current versions of the airbag helmet, a chemical process triggers expansion, but this doesn’t seem to guarantee maximum air pressure.
The standard bicycle helmet test used in the study also only reveals a helmet’s ability to reduce the risk of skull fracture and head injury, and does not directly relate to the risk for concussion. However Camarillo commented that with the positive results and large advantage of the airbag helmet seen in this research, there is a good chance the helmet would also reduce the risk of concussion when compared to a foam helmet.
Although such helmets are now available in some European countries, they are not yet available in the U.S., with Camarillo commenting that, “If our research and that of others begins to provide more and more evidence that this airbag approach might be significantly more effective, there will be some major challenges in the U.S. to legally have a device available to the public.” One of these challenges is that the helmets will require more testing for U.S. approval, but helmets are generally tested on a head dummy without a neck, which couldn’t wear the airbag helmet.
The team are also planning to do their own further research on the helmet, and there are also plans to develop a smart helmet which can predict the severity of a collision and protect the head accordingly.
The results of the research are included in the Sept. 27 edition of Annals of Biomedical Engineering, and you can see the team talk more about the airbag helmet below.