Bob Weber had a small but simple plan. He wanted to design a safer helmet for dirt bike riders.
The Brea-based entrepreneur ended up disrupting the $250-million-a-year motorcycle helmet industry and igniting a debate over head injuries that could have much broader impact.
Weber's company, 6D, already has an admiring imitator in Bell, the leading U.S. helmet company, which has released a new model in direct response to 6D's ground-breaking design.
In what 6D calls the first comprehensive revision to the motorcycle helmet in half a century, the company installed a movable interior liner that absorbs and disperses the energy of a crash, much the way an automobile's "crumple zones" do.
After two decades in the power-sports business, Weber — a veteran racer, rider and industry executive — had come to believe that motorcycle helmets, counterintuitively, were too strong. Designed to protect riders from the most catastrophic crashes, the helmets were actually too hard to protect them from anything else.
His 6D helmet instead aims to protect riders from far more common concussions and brain injuries that can occur in lower-speed accidents. It could have implications well beyond motorcycling, as the new head-protection technology migrates to other sports — particularly football, where a debate is raging over how to protect players from concussions.
Bell acknowledges that its new Moto-9 Flex helmet was inspired by the innovation at 6D, which released its Advanced Impact Defense helmet in 2013. Bell's parent company, Fenway Partners, through its subsidiaries Riddell and Giro, may soon incorporate the same new technology into football, bicycle and snowboarding helmets, according to Bell.
"Did they drive us to build a better helmet? Absolutely!" said Chris Sackett, Bell's vice president. "I definitely want to give them credit. It got us thinking."
Their thinking led to a competitive helmet — at a lower price. The 6D helmets start at $745. A Bell Moto-9 Flex costs $649. An equivalent Arai VX-Pro4 runs about $600. But an entry-level off-road helmet from HJC could cost less than $100.
Weber said 6D welcomes the competition, even from industry giant Bell.
"They've got way more money and bigger distribution capability and more marketing funds — and they priced their helmet $100 less than our helmet," Weber said. "But the helmet industry has been asleep at the wheel for years about this issue. So I welcome them to the market."
Weber said 6D has plans for an expanded product line, possibly into other sports, but declined to elaborate.
The head-protection industry is big business. There are currently an estimated 10 million to 12 million motorcycle riders in the U.S. About half of all U.S. states have mandatory, universal helmet laws — though most require helmets for children and young adults.
The numbers go up dramatically when they include helmets worn in other sports, such as bicycling, skiing, snowboarding, football and horse-riding.
Health and transportation experts agree that helmet use improves rider and passenger safety. The Governors Highway Safety Assn. reported in mid-May that more than 4,500 U.S. motorcyclists died in 2014, and pressed for universal helmet laws.
"Helmets are the single most effective way to prevent serious injury and death in the event of a motorcycle crash," the GHSA said.
But not even the experts agree on what makes a safe helmet, or what kind of protection is best for the average rider.
A representative for the most widely recognized helmet-testing body dismissed the 6D helmet, saying it might meet the legal definition for safety, as set by the U.S. Department of Transportation, but is not safer for the users.
"These 6D helmets are 40% to 100% less protective in a severe crash," said Hong Zhang, education director for the Snell Foundation.
Zhang said her organization bought a 6D helmet, which was not submitted for Snell approval, and tested it. "The 6D helmet does meet the minimum DOT standard," she said. "Any other claim, there is no science to prove it."
But others insist the Snell standards are too high and test only for one kind of accident. Specifically, the Snell test involves striking the helmet hard, twice, in the same place — a test critics say is left over from the days when helmets had to protect against roll-over accidents in race cars.
"To pass Snell, you have to hit the helmet really, really hard," said David Thom, senior consultant specializing in head protection with the independent research firm Collision and Injury Dynamics. "But how many people actually have that kind of accident? Very, very few."
Traditional helmet design involves a two-ply system. The hard, shiny poly-carbonate or fiberglass exterior is designed to withstand blunt force from a direct impact. The firm, expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam inner lining is designed to absorb the energy transferred through the hard outer surface.
But by trying to protect against high-energy impact, Thom and others said, the traditional helmet surfaces are too hard, and have too little flexibility, to absorb lower-energy impacts.
Both the 6D and Bell Moto-Flex operate like traditional motorcycle helmets. Both are lightweight — about 3.5 pounds each — with good ventilation and visibility. They are designed to fit snugly and be secured to the rider's head by a traditional chin strap.
In a slow-speed accident, their manufacturers argue, the rider's head will be much better protected than in a helmet of the traditional style.
Weber said his privately held company is doing well. He said revenue doubled from 2013 to 2014, but he declined to offer further details on company sales and finances.
6D has already followed the dirt bike helmet with a mountain biking version, and will have a street riding helmet on the market by early 2016. Bell will include the new helmet design in its top-shelf street helmet in 2016 and have it in two more by 2017, the company said, and it will soon be selling bicycle helmets with the same design.
Meanwhile, 6D has suitors. The company has been approached by multiple competitors interested in licensing the 6D technology, Weber said.
"If it's a sport with a helmet, I have had contact with them," he said.
Early after its 2013 launch, the company got a marketing push when pro motocross rider Zack Bell, wearing a 6D helmet, had a horrific crash that went viral on YouTube. Bell landed hard, on his head, but was well enough to race in the next heat.
"This was an absolutely lethal crash, and he got up from it," Thom said.
In late May, top pro rider Eli Tomac has a similarly bad full-frontal crash. His injuries required surgery and eliminated him from the rest of the race season — but he suffered no concussion.
Thom and others stressed that although the new 6D and Bell Moto-9 Flex helmets can probably reduce helmet injuries to certain riders under certain conditions, no helmet manufacturer has figured out how to protect all riders in all kinds of accidents.
"It's the age-old question," said Chris Withnall, senior engineer at Biokinetics, a firm that tests product safety. "Can you tell me how you're going to crash your bike? If so, I'll tell you exactly what kind of helmet to buy."