Motorcycle helmets and innovation are three words I would not often put together in a sentence – at least, not in an affirmative use. This is because the motorcycle industry is incredibly slow to change, and furthering that regard, helmet manufacturers are at the pinnacle of resistance when it comes to technological progress.
For proof of this, look no further than the modern motorcycle helmet design, which has gone unchanged for over 50 years, and still offers the same basic concept: a hard exterior shell made from plastic or composites, a layer of styrofoam for impact absorption, and a comfort layer for the rider’s head.
In the same duration that motorcycle helmets have remained static in design, we have seen man walk on the moon; the proliferation of personal computers, the internet, and smartphones; and even the Boston Red Sox have overcome the Curse of the Bambino and become World Series champions, not once, but four times.
But yet, we have continued to build helmets the same tired way.
This isn’t because motorcycle helmets have reached some sort of peak design. Instead, this stagnation comes primarily from two factors: first, there is no driving force pushing for increased motorcycle helmet safety and effectiveness (sorry, hardline free market economists); and second, it is incredibly cheap to make a motorcycle helmets in their current forms.
There is however, a day coming when the motorcycle industry will have to reckon with a sea change regarding what goes on our heads when we ride a motorcycle, and that day is coming sooner rather than later.
This next, next big thing in motorcycle helmet technology is the implementation rotational energy mitigation designs and devices, of which at the forefront is the Swedish brand MIPS.
MIPS: Multi-Directional Impact Protection System
For those who don’t know, MIPS (short for multi-directional impact protection system) is the brand name for a set of helmet technologies that help mitigate the rotational forces that are applied to the brain during a head impact.
Instead, the Swedish company is a B2B brand, and licenses its technology to established helmet manufacturers.
Right now in the USA for street riders, only Bell and Icon offer MIPS helmets – the latter offering its first MIPS helmet literally as A&R was putting this article together for publication.
Of note and for contrast, on the dirt bike riding side of the motorcycle industry, 13 brands offer MIPS-equipped helmets: 509, Alpinestars, Answer, Arctiva, Bell, Fox, KTM, Klim, Moose Racing, MSR, Thor, Troy Lee Designs, and Z1R.
This dichotomy illustrates how frustratingly slow the adoption rate is for this ground-breaking technology for street riders.
MIPS has been around for the past 20 years though, but the brand is just now finding traction in the motorcycle industry, despite the fact it is already prominent in other industries, like cycling, snow sports, and equestrian events.
The primary driver for this renaissance, particularly in the United States, has to be the National Football League and its headline news battling concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
Because of the NFL, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a now a household term, and this has awoken a society to how the brain works, how vulnerable it is to injury, and how serious impacts to the head can be – even when there is no discernible concussion.
So, when MIPS invited me to Sweden to see first-hand their research, testing standards, and efforts to mitigate rotational energy transfer in motorcycle helmets, I was primed for the opportunity.
Brain injuries were now a national conversation, and the concept of rotational energy was reaching its zenith in other sports. The applications of this to motorcyclists was obvious.
Changing Minds, One Helmet at a Time
Despite all the progress that we have seen in other sporting segments, this concept of rotational energy and brain injuries is somehow still struggling to take hold in the motorcycle industry – especially in the on-road sectors – and I wanted to know why.
Of course, when you think about the fact that in the United States we still have to have the conversation about whether motorcyclists should be required to wear a helmet in the first place, it is perhaps not that surprising that we have been so slow to change the technology that protects our gray matter.
That aside, I have long wanted to have a conversation about helmet safety for motorcyclists, and for the first time in my 11-year career I could finally see a new technology that could change the way we approach helmet design. There was finally a helmet (or group of helmets) that I could point to and say, “these helmets are safer than those helmets, and here is the proof.”
For scale of subject, I liken MIPS and similar rotational energy technologies for helmets as being in the same league and magnitude as airbags for suits and jackets. Both of these advances create a new divide in motorcycle apparel, and effectively made the status quo obsolete.
This perspective and (a pretty serious collarbone fracture) led me several years ago to draw a line in the sand on my own personal safety regarding what I would wear on a motorcycle, and it led me to wear only garments that were airbag-equipped.
Arriving at track days and racing paddocks now, I see that airbag equipped suits are the new normal, and I am constantly seeing more airbag jackets on street riders as well.
And now, there is a similar sea change when it concerns our helmets and our head safety. Coming back from the MIPS headquarters in Sweden, I made new pledge to myself as well: I would only wear a helmet with MIPS or a similar technology.
That is how convincing the MIPS research and data has been for me. So, let me explain how I came to that conclusion.
A History of Protection
For me, the most convincing argument for MIPS is the people behind the technology, the extensive research that they have done on the subject, and the conclusions their data points to when it comes to rotational energy and brain damage.
While in Sweden, I spent close to half the day talking to Dr. Hans von Holst – one of the founders of MIPS and also a renowned neurosurgeon in Scandinavia – as he talked about the biological effects of head injuries, especially those that come as a product of rotational forces on the brain.
Dr. Von Holst’s work is the backbone of the MIPS project, and it grounds the company in a medical approach to what is obviously a medical problem.
Teaming up with Peter Halldin at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the pair formed MIPS as company and began to explore how helmets could be designed to better protect the brain during impacts, in particular how to protect the brain from the torsional forces that come from an impact’s rotation of the head.
While MIPS is more than just one single technology, the concept the company uses is very simple, and involves a bit of biomimicry.
Taking a page from the protective cerebral fluid that our brain floats in already, MIPS has built a system that allows a helmet to rotate on impact (typically between 10mm and 15mm) without essentially transmitting that rotation to the wearer’s head.
This not only lessens the rotational force that is transmitted to the rider’s brain, but allows that force to be dampened over a larger time-period, thus reducing its deleterious effects.
Based on over 20 years of research, modeling, and design, this technology from MIPS is showing not only meaningfully reduced g-loads on brain tissue during impact, but also a reduced torsional force on the head overall.
And from MIPS’s work, there is good science on why that last claim is the game-changer for the motorcycle industry, and why MIPS has been working in this space for the past 13 years to bring safer motorcycle helmets to market.
The Science & Anatomy
If there is a simple concept that can be flushed out of the work done by MIPS, it is that the human brain is quite good at absorbing lateral impacts, but does a very poor job in its handling of rotational forces.
To illustrate this concept, MIPS uses the analogy of a boxer. A jab might be a quick and shocking punch to the face, but in terms of brain damage, it is a fairly manageable blow. Take that same force though, and apply it with a hook or uppercut punch, and the effects are devastating. Chances are, a well-landed blow that rotates the head will see the recipient down on the mat.
The research and modeling done by Hans von Holst and Peter Halldin tells us the story why.
“If you start to look at the different types of injuries, there are mainly two types. There is the linear one, where all of the existing helmets are relying on, based on a 90° angle impact to the head,” Dr. Von Holst told us. “That is very good with all helmets.”
“However, about 65-75% of all accidents are caused by a rotational injury. This means that the brain is rotating around the brain stem, and we don’t have any axis to deal with that, and that is how I came to meet Peter Halldin. And we discussed for about six months how to deal with this.”
Von Holst continued to explain that the human brain has roughly the consistency of Jell-O, though it is just a touch less solid than this popular dessert. Poke a piece of Jell-O, and it jiggles – fun. Twist a piece of Jell-O though, and it rips apart – not so fun. The same happens to our brain.
Floating inside our skull in a pool of cerebrospinal fluid, our brain has a natural shock absorber. But when the damping ability of this fluid is exceeded, the leftover force flows through our brain tissue.
The research from Swedish Royal Institute of Technology shows us though that our brain tissue compresses better than it twists – which again, we know from our boxer analogy.
But more importantly, the research showed that when our brain tissue twists, that is when we most often see brain injuries physically manifest themselves.
Examining the damage to actual human brains, MIPS was able to see the physical effects that the rotating impacts created, and then they were able to use advanced computer finite element models to simulate the effect.
Dr. Von Holst’s work as a neurosurgeon showed that brains that were subjected to what was considered even a “minimal” level of linear impact, but with rotation, would cause tears in the brain.
These tears would occur all the way down to the level of the neurons and axons in the brain (quite literally, your brain cells), and from there the brain injuries occur.
“The problem with traumatic brain injuries is that there is very new information, statistical analysis, saying that following traumatic brain injury – mostly moderate to severe, but also modest traumatic brain injury – that has an increased potential risk for Alzheimer’s or dementia in the future,” Von Holst explained during our conversation.
Similar research in this space has also shown that there is building proof to show that effects of rotational impacts can lead also to memory loss, depression, mood alteration, and even dementia.
During our discussion on this topic, Dr. Von Holst showed me two slides of brain images, one from a patient with diagnosed dementia, and another with a traumatic brain injury. They looked identical, and that was when I realized that we, like the NFL, were not taking the research in this space anywhere nearly serious enough.
How MIPS Works
Before the research by MIPS and others, the concept to build a “safer” helmet involved rudimentarily just adding more thickness to the protective foam layer.
While this pursuit does reduce the lateral force to the brain, this action does very little to reduce the rotational forces. Only when you start adding multiple layers of foam with different absorption properties does the needle begin to move when it comes to dampening rotational forces on the brain.
This is a logical result though, because you are adding into the helmet the ability to compensate more for the rotation of the head, not just its lateral movement.
This is where MIPS and others change the game.
For MIPS, the main “Brain Protection System” (yes, that is actually what they call it) involves a very thin, very slippery surface that sits between the rider’s comfort layer and the foam impact layer of the helmet.
With its incredibly low coefficient of friction, this yellow MIPS slip-layer allows the rider’s head to pivot inside the helmet when the outer shell makes contact with an object.
The MIPS research – it should be pointed out here that MIPS is one of the few entities in the helmet business that has its own drop-test crashing rigs – aims for 10mm to 15mm of slip, in any direction, inside the helmet.
While only a small distance of travel, in terms of the incredibly short interval that helmet impacts occur – 5ms to 10ms – this is a pretty significant distance. For reference, it takes about 100ms – over 10x the amount of time as a helmet impact – for you to blink your eye.
For that duration, it is possible that 10-15mm of slip within the helmet can completely negate the rotational force to head, and at the very least it can spread that rotating force over a greater area of impact foam.
Most importantly, this isn’t a perceived benefit. MIPS has the data to back it up, and with over 31,000 impact tests done in their laboratory, the benefit here isn’t just theoretical.
The MIPS team is able to test every helmet they equip with the low-friction liner, and then analyze the results with high-speed film, impact gyroscopes, and finite element modeling.
To prove its designs, the MIPS test involves dropping helmets on an impact form that is at a 45° angle to the trajectory of the fall. When the helmet strikes the angled form, it is traveling at 7.5 meters per second (roughy 17 mph). This test is done for the X, Y, and Z axis of the helmet, to ensure that movement in any direction can occur sufficiently.
It is of note and interesting to see from the work at MIPS that the human brain is more sensitive to rotation around the X-axis (roll) and Z-axis (yaw) than it is to rotation around the Y-axis (pitch).
Long Story Short: Why I Changed Helmets
Before going to the MIPS facility, the guiding lights that I would offer to helmet purchasers were fairly simple: your best sources for crash data are SHARP in the UK and CRASH in Australia, as they are independent bodies that are crash-testing helmets in their own facilities.
From their results, I have seen little correlation between high-testing crash results and the upward price of a helmet, though there does seem to be an inverse trend (with more than a few exceptions) between weight and crash scores.
Generally speaking, the heavier the helmet, the better the score. The whole “$100 head, $100 helmet” maxim is almost entirely marketing-speak to get you in a more expensive lid.
I would also add two final caveats: one, that helmets with built-in visors and other similar features do so typically at the expense of added impact foam; and two, that the size of the visor mounting system can have great effect on a helmet’s side impact test results.
Outside of all these constraints, I have seen very little evidence that any one brand stands head-and-shoulders above another in terms of head safety. That has changed with MIPS, however.
Now, my advice to motorcycle helmet shoppers is simple: find a helmet that fits your head, is comfortable to wear for a duration, and has a rotational energy mitigation technology like MIPS – and of which, MIPS has out-shined its competitors when it comes to levels of available research and science.
As a motorcycle enthusiast (turned motorcycle journalist), it is surprising to see that motorcycle riding, particularly street bike riding has been so slow to this concept of rotational energy.
MIPS-equipped helmets are the de facto standard now in the bicycle, equestrian, and snow sport helmet industries. The yellow dot logo is even making strides in the dirt biking space (perhaps thanks to the prevalence MIPS has enjoyed with the mountain bikers).
As of this writing though, there are four street bike helmets on the market with MIPS installed – and one of them was just announced during the week this story was being put together. That helmet is the Icon Airflite MIPS Stealth ($320) street bike helmet, while Bell offers the more sport-focused Bell Star MIPS DLX ($525) as well as the Bell MX-9 Adventure MIPS ($330) and Bell Qualifier MIPS DLX ($215).
Why do we not see more MIPS helmets then? If you ask many of the helmet brands, publicly the answer is usually that they do not want to increase the price of their helmet offerings, and also that they do not see much interest from their customers in having the added protection.
Additionally, there is one fairly prominent helmet manufacturer that argues that because their helmet is the “roundest” on the market, it achieves essentially the same effect as MIPS and similar technologies. Again, I remind you that this is the level of sophistication that plagues this space of our industry.
The reality though comes back to what I described at the start of this story, that the motorcycle industry is slow to change, and helmet manufacturers even more resistant to the march of time.
It is also very cheap to make a traditional motorcycle helmet, with the cost of goods sold (COGS) usually in the tens of dollars range, and this is for helmets that sell for hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
The per-unit-cost of adding MIPS to a helmet? It can vary, but the Swedish company tells us that it is roughly $50 per helmet.
For my own head, that $50 figure is a small sum to pay to protect what is between my ears, especially when a good road racing helmet is easily north of $500 in price, and closer to $1000 these days for the top brands.
Actions speak louder than words though, and almost 3,300 words later I will boil all of this down into something more tangible: the first thing I did after visiting MIPS was to retire my favorite racing lid and switch to one that had a rotational dampening system.
I am fortunate that my job gives me access to quite literally any helmet on the market (and some not even available for purchase), and after looking at the data and research presented by MIPS, for me there can be no question the difference that these rotational systems make when it comes to helmet safety, and after all protecting your head is job #1 for your helmet.
For my part, I am voting with my dollars, and wherever possible, I will have a MIPS-equipped helmet or similar technology on my head. For now, this means an appalling few number of street helmets are available in the USA to sport bike riders like myself, but there is some hope for change.
Already, there is the new FIM helmet standard, which incorporates rotational energy testing into its parameters (though there is some debate on whether or not those standards are being enforced, but that is a topic for another day), and from the FIM’s efforts, there could be a new push for helmet brands to adopt MIPS or to have them develop their own technologies.
There is also the hope that stories like this, and those by my colleagues who have also visited MIPS (all of whom who have been equally changed in their perspectives on helmet safety), will raise the issue higher, and put more pressure on the established motorcycle helmet brands.
This change can only be seen as a positive for the typical motorcycle enthusiast, and where there is complacency, there is room for disruption. This is why MIPS is the next, next big thing. Keep an eye out for those little yellow dots, you are going to be seeing them a lot more often in the coming years.