MIPS: The Reality Behind Making Helmets ‘Safer’ Does MIPS make a helmet 'safer'? Is it possible to ride the 'safest' helmet?

Since MIPS hit the helmet market the helmet liners and the little yellow MIPS sticker have become ubiquitous. Lazer, Bontrager, Giro, Bell, Scott, POC, Oakley and a slew of other brands are using MIPS inserts. The driving force for this wide spread adoption of MIPS has been the belief that a MIPS equipped helmet is safer. What do MIPS helmets actually do? Is there a way to determine which helmets are the safest? Is MIPS in fact actually safer?

PELOTON

PELOTON recently sat in on a presentation from MIPS at Giro’s Scotts Valley HQ and got answers to many of those questions. Here’s what we learned.

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What is MIPS?
MIPS stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System. Called a slip plane, the interior layer, frequently yellow, allows for 10-15 mm of rotational movement between the head and the helmet in the critical 10-15 milliseconds after an oblique impact. This reduces the rotational forces exerted on the brain during impact and, presumably, reduces brain injury relative to the same helmet without MIPS.

Since 2010 MIPS has grown exponentially with 60 helmet brands using MIPS , over 300 models on the road and over 5 million helmets.

Where did MIPS come from?
During research for the World Health Organization in Geneva a Swedish neurosurgeon, Hans von Holst, felt like he was seeing way too much brain injury after accidents in patients that were wearing helmets. Why did the helmets not work very well? It turns out the brain is great at handling linear impacts, a straight shot to the skull, but very bad at handling oblique impacts which create rotational strain. It’s why an uppercut knocks a boxer out, but a direct punch to the face just breaks a nose. Most accidents skiing, horse back riding or cycling induce rotational forces on the brain, not linear. Helmets and test standards were designed to deal with linear impact.

Hans von Holst hooked up with Peter Halldin and Svein Kleiven, at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden who were testing helmets and had access to one of just six FEA (Finite Element Analysis) models of the human brain. They put their heads together, so to speak, and came up with MIPS slip plane technology. It debuted in 2007 in the equestrian world and and made its way to bikes in 2010.

How much safer is a MIPS equipped helmet?
This is a difficult question to answer. Neither MIPS, or our hosts Giro, were willing to call any helmet safer, no matter how much innovation, engineering and testing has been thrown into making the helmet just that – safer. You can thank America’s litigious society for that. As Giro says, “Everybody is different and every accident is different.” They can run a new helmet through a battery of tests, and it can handle impacts better than the previous version, but to say its safer opens them up to litigation in the case of an accident.

This is a sad state of affairs, but understandable. Some brands are actually getting sued because the user purchased and crashed in a non-MIPS helmet, and the brand is somehow responsible for the riders decision not to buy a MIPs equipped helmet. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds, but this is why MIPS, Giro and the helmet industry at large are unwilling to use the word ‘safer’.

If we can’t say ‘Safer’, what can we say?
For MIPS, all they will say is any helmet equipped with MIPS is at least 10% better at handling rotational impact than the same helmet without MIPS. That’s it. If the helmet only gets 9% better with the addition of slip plane technology, MIPS won’t allow that helmet to get MIPS. Of course, many helmets handle rotational impact 60% better or more with the addition of MIPS, but MIPS will not share which brand’s helmets get only 10% better versus the brands that improve 60%.

If 10% is all MIPS can claim, we have to ask, is a 10% reduction in rotational force significant when it comes to reducing brain injury? As you might imagine, MIPS makes no claims on this. Remember, “Everybody is different and every accident is different.” This is sort of a helmet manufacturer mantra when it comes to safety claims. Thank a lawyer. But we think of it this way, less brain damage, even 10% less, would be preferable after an accident, right?

How do we know we’re getting the ‘safest’ helmet we can get?
This may be the biggest question of all. Regardless of aerodynamics, or weight or MIPS or Giro or any brand, don’t we all want the safest version of our chosen helmet? The answer will disappoint – there is no way for a rider to know which helmet is the safest. This is a shame, since the helmets can all be tested across the same standardized tests, and we could at least learn which helmets perform the best across the battery of tests, knowing in the real world, “Everybody is different and every accident is different.” Currently MIPS nor Giro, nor anyother brand is willing to open themselves up to the type of litigation that could arise from ‘safest’ claims. MIPS has a huge comparison chart showing where every helmet they have tested rates in its ability to reduce the devastating effects of rotational impacts. MIPS is keeping it private. We can’t blame them.

Helmets must pass standardized tests – CPSC (US Consumer Product Safety Commission), CE (European Standard), Snell, DOT, etc . . . – which consist of things like drops on flat or hemispherical anvils, coverage measurements, etc . . . A helmet simply passes these tests, it does not get a rating on how well it passed. Flying colors or did it just squeaked by? There is no way to know.

But at lest we know a MIPS helmet will be safer, right?
Well, no and no. All we know is a MIPS equipped helmet is at least 10% better at handling rotational impact than the non-MIPS verision. That’s all MIPS will say. But it’s even more complicated than that. Some helmets are inherently better at dissipating rotational impacts than others, even before the MIPS liner. If Brand-A is 40% better at it than Brand-B, give Brand-B a MIPS layer and a 10% improvement, and it’s still not as good as Brand-A at handling rotational impacts, even though Brand-B is MIPS equipped and Brand-A has no MIPS liner.

So, what’s the bottom line?

The bottom line is there is simply no way to tell if your chosen helmet is safer than any other. Despite much of a helmets safety performance being eminently quantifiable, the legal downside to making ‘safe’ claims is just too great.

Chose a helmet you like, that fits well, from a good and reputable manufacturer. If they offer a MIPS version, cough up the extra $20 or so bucks get the MIPS version. It will, at the very least, be 10% better at dissipating the rotational forces of an impact better than the non-MIPS version of that same helmet, and likely better than that. If you have a helmet model you love and it’s not offered in MIPS, don’t beat yourself up. It may in fact be better at handling rotational impact than a different brand’s MIPS versions, there is just no way to know. Until then, just wear your helmet every time you pedal. Racing, training, commuting – wear your helmet, and do what you can to avoid needing it all together with daytime running lights and defensive riding.

Stay safe out there.