As a lifelong motorcyclist, bicyclist and general risk taker, I wear a lot of helmets, and happily so, as I’ve seen the terrible effects of bad head injuries and even taken a few hard knocks myself. I’m fairly certain helmets have saved my life on at least two occasions, and certainly protected me from several serious head injuries. Helmet tech is pretty simple overall, consisting of a hard shell, an energy-absorbing layer and some padding for your noggin. One is as good as the other, right? Wrong.
Evolution has thankfully given us a strong brain case – our skull – to protect our spongy waterbag brains, but our skulls are really only good for protecting our big bundle of neurons from impacts up to about 10 miles an hour, according to research. Which makes sense, since most of us are not Usain Bolt and we can just barely attain double-digit velocities in a dead sprint and only then for a very short time. Instead of outrunning those bears and sabre-tooth tigers eons ago, we used our superior mental abilities to outsmart them, invent weapons, kill them and use their fur for warm, stylish caveman outerwear. But by that point, nature had already given us the tough skulls we still carry around today, but was in no way able to suddenly adapt us for the sudden rise of MNF, equestrian competitions or stopping short of hitting that delivery van that just pulled in front of our bicycle or motorcycle. Thus: Helmets.
For 25 years, Swedish researcher and mechanical engineer Peter Halldin has made improving helmet safety tech a personal mission, which has translated into a successful internationally-recognized business, known as MIPS. The acronym stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System. Halldin also has a background in biomechanics.
In the motorcycle and car industries, acronyms are often dreamed up by marketing people to make a product sound more high-tech or give a catchy name to a feature. When I first saw a helmet with a little yellow “MIPS” tag on it, I figured it was more of the same, but when I did a bit more research, I was happy to find out that MIPS is a deeply researched, genuinely effective safety technology. Recently, I got up very early to join a video conference call with Halldin, MIPS Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer, and get a very in-depth explanation of MIPS technology, research and testing procedures, along with a Zoom video tour of the impressive MIPS testing facility in Stockholm, Sweden. Trust me, these are for-real scientists and are very passionate about protecting your head in a crash.
Today, MIPS-equipped helmets are widely available from over 100 helmet brands makers across several categories, including motorcycle helmets, bike helmets, mountaineering, hockey, safety gear (think construction and military helmets) and even equestrian helmets. MIPS doesn’t make the helmets themselves, they contract with helmet makers to include the MIPS tech in their offerings and oversee implementation so the MIPS tech works as designed.
According to Halldin, the roots of MIPS research began in 1995 in a quest to make a helmet a more effective safety device. The question MIPS was trying to answer was fairly simple, but the answer was highly complex: How can helmets do a better job of protecting the user’s brain – not just their skull – from blunt-force direct impacts, but also from the other forces often encountered in a motorcycle crash? Because in 1995 (and even often today), helmet testing and certification of any kind usually consisted mainly of standardized “drop tests” that measured how much a helmet ablates a direct impact. But as Halldin knew, most crashes include an angled or obtuse impact, sometimes several of them, when a rider hits the ground or an object in a crash.
Yes, direct impact absorption by the helmet is important, but to get a better picture of an expanded crash scenario, Halldin and his team studied motorcycle crashes and the resulting head injuries to helmeted riders, conducted countless lab tests, and created new testing methods and apparatus to measure the rotational forces on a helmet in a crash. They focused not just on the helmet’s motion and behavior during the tiny time-frame of an impact, but also what effect that motion had on the wearer’s brain. Some very serious science resulted.
A bit of Biomechanics 101 is needed here. While protecting helmet wearers’ skulls from the forces and abrasion of an impact are certainly a key performance parameter of a helmet, what goes on inside a wearer’s melon is equally if not more important. We’ve all heard about the long-term problems American football players have with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, and their health issues after years of bashing into other players on the field.
If a helmet was protecting wearers from all the problems of those impacts, those players should not have had brain injury issues. Clearly, that’s not the case. What happens in a severe (and even not-so-severe) impact is that our delicate, complex brains, which are essentially made of water held in a cellular lattice, sort of rattle around inside of our skulls during an impact. How strong the “rattle” is can mean the difference between a bonk you quickly recover from to traumatic brain injury (TBI) to a hit bad enough – helmet or no helmet – to cause death or a long-term brain injury. Like the old car and motorcycle racing saying goes, it’s not the speed that kills you, it’s the sudden stops.
But getting back to Halldin. Over two decades ago, Halldin, Hans von Holst and Svein Kleiven started looking into helmet efficacy and brain injuries, and came away with an important finding: While helmets do a good job at absorbing more direct or radial impact energy, they weren’t doing such a great job of protecting wearers from the trauma that occurs when their head moves in a rotational (or oblique) manner in a crash. These oblique rotational events happen extremely quickly, in as short as 10-15 milliseconds during a crash – an eye blink is 100 milliseconds – and the brain can’t physically move or “keep up” with the rotation movement of the skull, with brain injuries, often swelling or bleeding known as a hematoma, taking place as a result. If the injury is bad enough, it can result in brain damage or death. But if you can lessen that movement, injuries – and deaths – can be reduced.
Halldin and his team even went so far as to implant markers into the brains of cadavers and then subject them to crash forces in the lab while using X-rays to “film” the motion of the brain inside the skull to get a real-time recording of brain movement. That, and an enormous amount of other research over many years including smacking sensor-laden helmeted mannequin heads into custom-built test rigs, and the use of cutting-edge tools such as predictive Finite Element Analysis for computer modeling of crash scenarios, led him to develop the Multi-directional Impact Protection System, or MIPS system, that’s available today. After extensive peer review and confirmation of their findings, the first MIPS-equipped helmets hit the market in 2009. Millions have been sold since.
Here’s how MIPS works: Inside the helmet, a thin, specially designed low-friction (or “slippery”) plastic lining (the yellow part in the above image) sits between the impact-absorbing layer of the helmet, which is usually composed of a material resembling polystyrene, or styrofoam, and the helmet padding that comprises the helmet’s “interface” with the wearer’s head. In a crash, the energy absorption layer does its job of ablating, or dispersing, the impact energy, but the thin MIPS layer allows the helmet to briefly rotate a short distance around the head of the wearer, so the most severe rotational aspect of the crash is essentially bourne by the motion of the helmet, and not transmitted to the wearer’s skull – and brain.
It might sound simple, like, hey, just buy a size bigger helmet and it’ll do the same thing (please don’t), but it’s far, far more complicated than that to realize the benefits of a MIPS-equipped hat. The difficulties in making the MIPS system work are many and varied: the interior slip lining has to be very thin yet still allow effective movement, the helmet still must meet overall U.S./EU impact standards, the helmet can’t rotate TOO much or else other injuries might occur, and the helmet has to essentially work, look and function in a way familiar to the user. In other words, the MIPS tech had to be effective, while also being essentially invisible. A tall order, but after years of refinement, all of these goals have been met by the MIPS team. So what are the helmets like to wear?
MIPS sent me an Icon Airflite Stealth MIPS-equipped helmet to try and serendipitously, an ebike company sent me a Smith Network bicycle helmet with MIPS tech at almost the same time, so I got to try both out. Over 100 companies now use MIPS tech in their helmets.
While wearing the rather snazzy Icon Airflite Stealth lid, the MIPS tech is indeed invisible. The helmet feels and works like any other top-shelf helmet, and even if you try to “move” the outer shell around while wearing it, it doesn’t feel any different than a non-MIPS helmet. But dig into the lining and you can locate the MIPS layer, ready and waiting to let the outer shell rotate 10-15 millimeters on impact, which Halldin says is the optimal movement range that combines effective protection and operable familiarity. According to their testing, the MIPS system can reduce the computed strain in the brain between 10 to 50 percent, depending on the severity and type of crash involved.
The Smith Network bike helmet (above) is a bit different. With a much lighter structure and the half-coverage design, it’s easy to see the MIPS layer under the more sparse padding, and once strapped to your head, it’s easy to feel the layer at work as you use both hands to move the helmet around a bit. The layer is very thin and weighs almost nothing, so it doesn’t bulk up the helmet or otherwise make itself known, all by design. It doesn’t move much, but it isn’t supposed to. If I took the MIPS sticker off and handed the Network to an unsuspecting user, they would likely think it’s an ordinary bicycle helmet. Mission accomplished.
With all of the hours and effort Halldin and the MIPS team has sunk into R&D, the next question is obvious: Why don’t other helmets, such as football helmets, use MIPS technology? Halldin says they have looked into the idea and even let me peek at a test mule, but don’t look for the little MIPS sticker on any football helmets anytime soon. Halldin explained that while they have taken a close look at the prospect of getting MIPS into football helmets, myriad regulations, helmet standards and legal hurdles make it unlikely in the near future. Additionally, Halldin says that the impact types footballers usually experience are more of the blunt-impact variety instead of the rotational types MIPS was developed to protect against, so football helmets actually need improvements in other performance areas.
Meanwhile, Halldin and his team at MIPS continue to test, research and refine the MIPS technology. They are also pushing the U.S. and other countries to adopt more stringent and varied testing protocols to encourage helmet makers to raise their game, whether it’s by using MIPS tech or something else. Sure, a helmet with MIPS can cost a bit more than one without. But when it comes down to it, when your helmet literally hits the road, it brings to mind another motorcycling bon mot: If you’ve got a $10 head, get a $10 dollar helmet.
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