Most people who regularly ride bicycles agree that wearing a helmet provides additional safety and protection. However, the average European cyclist rarely – or never – wears one. Where is the mismatch? How can manufacturers and legislators come together to increase traffic safety for cyclists? And what role will helmets play in this?
Cycling is not only a healthy and safe form of exercise, it is also a viable alternative form of transportation that reduces carbon emissions and relieves road congestion. As European countries endeavour to increase cycling as an accepted form of transport amongst its citizens, certain factors must be considered in order to optimise safety efforts even further. At present, cyclists represent about 6% of all fatalities (averaged over many western countries).
The bicycle helmet is one of the key pieces of equipment that can increase safety when cycling. However, significant social, psychological, cultural and biological deterrents prevent many cyclists from wearing helmets. Only when all of these deterrents are studied together, can true progress be made. After all, optimising helmets only for one factor – such as physical comfort – does not address the other factors that can so strongly impact a cyclists’ decision to wear a helmet or not.
Furthermore, while the helmets currently available on the market are of good quality, they are certified using standards that were developed more than 30 years ago. Recent developments and understanding in biomechanics could be used to help helmet manufacturers further optimise helmet protective properties.
Another issue affecting the speed of progress in this area is the lack of systematic research on the topic, especially on a European level. There is currently no standard for reporting or collecting bicycle accident data, and no European-wide database into which this information can be collected. As scientists and experts in each country make progress in their own investigations, there is little opportunity to share their findings with the broader European community of scientists and researchers. As in many other research areas, the power of collaboration is undeniable: when researchers and scientists come together with a common goal, progress is swifter, scientific understanding is boosted, and results are more easily disseminated and put into practice.
A European Collaboration for Helmet Optimization
In order to facilitate this type of effective collaboration, COST established a unique Action that provided funding to stimulate the creation of an international network, rather than to reach specific research outcomes. COST Action TU1101 focused on improving collaboration amongst European researchers and bringing together the leading researchers in the field of helmet safety and comfort. Through a Europe-wide collaborative effort, the information gathered, discovered and shared can benefit every country equally, and become a stepping-stone for even further research and development, and legislative improvement. The results of the collaboration will not only impact both the helmet industry and current legislation: it will also accelerate development and lead to even safer cycling behaviour. The benefits of the Action, therefore, reach far beyond the parameters of the study – they can actually impact future work for a significant period of time to come.
To effectively execute the COST Action objectives, nearly 60 members, representing 21 countries, came together to create HOPE: Helmet OPtimization in Europe, an Action aimed at working together to address the key issues regarding helmet usage from all of the perspectives that play a role.
As part of the COST Action, HOPE’s primary objectives were to:
• Stimulate international collaboration in the field of bicycle traffic safety and helmets;
• Increase scientific knowledge with regards to traffic safety of cyclists;
• Disseminate this knowledge to key stakeholders, including manufacturers, legislators, the scientific community, and of course, the cyclists themselves.
In addition, HOPE aimed to achieve a number of secondary objectives, including:
• Producing state-of-the-art reviews, disseminating knowledge and identifying new areas for research regarding the wide variety of social, psychological, physical and cultural aspects of the decision to wear a helmet;
• Establishing a pan-European database of parameters regarding helmet usage and injury statistics;
• Developing knowledge about cyclist behaviour to enhance cyclists’ conspicuity on the road;
• Investigating the protective properties of bicycle helmets in real accident situations in order to improve helmet testing standards;
• Stimulating new research collaborations, preferably on a European level;
• Disseminating information to the public, to the industry and to legislators, in an effort to maximise user comfort and adoption, influence safety and manufacturing standards, and ultimately benefit society.
Working Group Objectives
In order to optimise the efficacy of the 59 researchers that comprise HOPE, these expert scientists split into four Working Groups, each focussing on a specific critical factor related to cycling safety. Through regular meetings and communication, the Working Groups ensured not only their own progress, but also the progress of the Action in its entirety.
- Working Group 1: In-depth Accident Observations and Injury Statistics
This Working Group focused on the development of a Europe-wide injury and helmet usage database, and the development of acceptance criteria for helmet usage.
- Working Group 2: Traffic Psychology
This group studied the confounding psychological factors associated with a cyclists’ choice of whether or not to wear a helmet, and the conspicuity criteria of helmets.
- Working Group 3: Impact Engineering
This group reconstructed actual accidents in various countries, and consolidated biomechanical research results, in order to develop new standards for helmets and to improve helmet protection capabilities.
- Working Group 4: Ergonomics of Thermal Aspects of Helmet Usage
Given that thermal discomfort is one of the primary reasons why cyclists do not wear helmets, this group explored thermal aspects in order to develop guidelines for the optimisation of helmet design for thermal comfort.
During the four-year Action, and certainly as results were collected, each of the four Working Groups made significant efforts to disseminate their findings to experts in the field. Through publications, presentations, meetings and additional research opportunities, HOPE is using the Action outputs to increase scientific knowledge and advance further research in the key areas identified during the Action.
Main Conclusions of the COST Action
HOPE has enabled an unprecedented level of international collaboration, as well as significant output that will help advance developments in the field of bicycle helmets. With the establishment of a Europe-wide database and suggested standards for accident reporting, researchers in various countries can be stimulated to continue collaborating in a way that benefits cyclists across Europe.
The inclusion of psychological and social aspects of helmet usage is crucial in the effective development of both helmet design and legislation. In order to increase and encourage helmet usage, these factors must be taken into consideration. After all, a helmet cannot be effective if it is not worn, and worn properly. The information and guidelines developed by HOPE will help address these issues in a concrete way.
Furthermore, the collection of published research, testing results and accident simulation has identified shortcomings in both current helmet design and test standards. The proposal of a new bicycle helmet test method, which integrates more realistic impact conditions and pass/fail criteria, will likely increase helmet efficacy and reduce the number of serious head injuries as the result of falls or collision with vehicles.
Lastly, the research conducted about thermal comfort resulted in improved techniques for addressing this ever-important factor in cyclist compliance. Through specific design and manufacturing improvements, thermal factors can be addressed in a way that significantly reduces discomfort and thereby increases helmet usage.
One of HOPE’s interesting observations is that focussing on the same issues, explored from different perspectives, can produce different results. It therefore follows that, while most of HOPE’s findings are comparable to and consistent with each other, there are some findings that seem to contradict each other at first sight, when viewed as a whole. This illustrates the need for further research and investigation to find the right balance, in which the different approaches are integrated even further.
Outlook for Future Development
Despite the wealth of new information and data that HOPE was able to collect and disseminate, perhaps the most crucial outcome for the Action was the bringing together of international experts in the spirit of collaborative thinking. In fact, the bonds formed during the Action were so powerful and beneficial, that many of the participants in the Action will continue their collaboration after the Action activities have been completed. Action members have submitted additional research project proposals, and have also been invited to join other research groups, based upon their work with HOPE.
In addition, further studies, presentations, publications and research opportunities have already been established or are underway. This is a clear indicator of the importance of the Action and the opportunities that HOPE has provided to increase collaborative effort and progress in the field.
Suggestions for Further Study
The strong scientific outcomes of the Action indicate that research funding is best optimised through this type of collaborative effort. While the Action’s outputs provided answers to many key questions related to this topic, many additional questions arose as well. All of the specific aspects of helmet safety have not been addressed in full. However, this COST Action has certainly opened the door for more fruitful, effective and directed research that can benefit cyclists across Europe.
Each Working Group has provided a list of suggestions for further research and development, as a direct result of the Action’s outputs. These research areas include, but are not limited to:
- Further investigation into the development of a system through which European cycling data and accident information can be more uniformly, accurately, comprehensively and effectively collected, shared and distributed;
- Research into improvements to helmet design and helmet usage standards, customised for each type of bicycle and optimised against advanced brain injury criteria for typical impact conditions in real-world accidents;
- Studies of the psychological, demographic and sociological aspects that affect helmet usage, such as cyclist age, road types and cyclist perception;
- Exploration of how helmet usage can increase visibility, improve cyclists’ visual search behaviour and impact city-sponsored bike lending programmes;
- Achievement of a consensus concerning a six-dimensional global head kinematics model for pass/fail criteria. While Working Group 3 believes that a model-based injury criteria shows the strongest potential, additional work is needed to harmonise different finite element models;
- The improvement of testing methodologies and simulation techniques for more accurate and effective evaluations of helmet efficacy;
- Additional studies of thermal properties and their effect on helmet usage, and the creation of modelling frameworks, simulators and testing standards that will improve the overall design and comfort of cycling helmets, and therefore increase usage and acceptance.
COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) is a pan-European intergovernmental framework. Its mission is to enable break-through scientific and technological developments leading to new concepts and products and thereby contribute to strengthening Europe’s research and innovation capacities.
It allows researchers, engineers and scholars to jointly develop their own ideas and take new initiatives across all fields of science and technology, while promoting multi- and interdisciplinary approaches. COST aims at fostering a better integration of less research-intensive countries to the knowledge hubs of the European Research Area. The COST Association, an International not-for profit Association under Belgian Law, integrates all management, governing and administrative functions necessary for the operation of the framework. The COST Association has currently 36 Member Countries. www.cost.eu