Mike Lowe knows all too well the importance of a good helmet. Just last month, the VP of Product Creation at Bell Helmets took his motorcycle for a drive through the Santa Cruz mountains to test out a new helmet model and was thrown from his seat, shattering his collar bone and sustaining a serious concussion.
"I don't remember anything," he says. "But apparently I was with it enough to tell the helicopter medics that I work for the company that saved my life."
Lowe has worked at Bell for more than 20 years and has seen the company through several technological expansions, including the build out of its lauded engineering and design center in 2010. Nicknamed "The Dome," the facility is located at Bell's headquarters in Scotts Valley, Calif., and houses the largest testing center of any helmet company in North America. It is stocked with an arsenal of machines used to simulate crashes before they happen in the real world.
Bell's reputation is built on safety. The company – which made the first ever auto-racing helmet in 1954 and is thus celebrating its 60th anniversary this year – subjects its motorcycle helmets to severe testing to make sure each model meets the industry's strictest safety requirements, including the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), the United States Department of Transportation, and the Snell Foundation's safety standards.
One test involves dropping the helmets at velocities ranging from 5 to 17 mph from a twin wire drop rig – a contraption that hoists the helmet on wires and then allows it to fall straight onto a surface that's flat, hemispheric, or a curb-like right angle. Those speeds may not sound fast, but the test doesn't account for energy absorbed by the body, making the impact more representative of what would occur at much higher speeds.
Alex Szela, who runs many of Bell's tests, says the goal is to distribute the force of the impact over time so that the helmet can effectively absorb it. "You want a nice, slow curve, because your body needs time to react," he says.
In recent months, Bell has also developed a proprietary rotational testing device that gives an even more realistic sense of how the body behaves in a crash. A helmet is fastened to a standard weighted headform, which is attached to an approximate model of the cervical spine and a weighted torso. The dummy is then pulled back and launched at an angle similar to what would happen if it were thrown from a bike. Szela analyzes video footage and takes measurements of the impact to see how well the helmet performs.
The fact is, as many of Bell's engineers explained, you have little control over how you fall or land when you're thrown from a bike at high speeds (while there isn't an exact barometer for what speeds constitute a fatal crash, impact at 300 G's will almost guarantee a skull fracture or concussion – and that's with a helmet). Ultimately, you're best bet is to load up on protective gear to safeguard your body.
On the manufacturing side, there has been increased focus on making sure helmets also perform in low-velocity crashes as roughly 80 percent happen at low speeds. This means making the expanded polystyrene helmets hard enough to withstand major hits – but soft enough to absorb as much shock as possible without causing additional trauma. "In the end," Lowe says, "it's got to protect to the best of its ability."