A Heads-Up on Helmet Choice


Living in a place where the mountains are only a couple of hours from the beach is a sports enthusiast’s dream. But experts warn that with this freedom comes the responsibility of wearing safety helmets--and knowing the right one to wear.

Helmets designed for one sport often don’t offer the same head protection for other activities.

While bike helmets are the most common, they can give people participating in other sports a false sense of security.



* The National Safety Council recently warned that bicycle helmets should not be used for canoeing, white-water rafting or kayaking because injuries suffered in these sports often involve hitting sharp objects multiple times. Bicycle helmets cannot cope with this type of impact.

* Safety experts have recently begun urging in-line skaters, who for years have used bike helmets, to instead use new types that offer better protection for the back of the head. Those who participate in freestyle and trick skating should use a multi-impact helmet that offers even more protection, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

* Earlier this year, the Consumer Products Safety Commission issued a warning that skiers and snowboarders should wear helmets specifically designed for their sports.



There are no statistics on the number of injuries involving people wearing improper helmets. But with people taking up an increasing number of high-energy sports, the risk of mismatching increases.

“You can’t have one helmet that does everything. There are always compromises of coverage, weight and number of impacts,” said David Thom of the Head Protection Research Laboratory. “But any helmet is better than no helmet.”

Manufacturers have talked about creating an all-purpose helmet but don’t expect a product soon.

Thom said there are two main difficulties in creating an all-in-one helmet.

The level of shock absorbency is one factor, he said. Helmets for some sports, such as football and ice hockey, must be able to withstand multiple impacts at low forces.

Bicycling and in-line skating athletes may not crash for years, but when they do, the impact is likely to be greater because of faster speeds.

“A helmet would have to be 3 to 4 inches thick to do both kinds of things,” said Thom Parks, spokesman for Bell Sports in San Jose. “If we made it look like that, no one would wear it.”

The second factor that helmet manufacturers must consider is how much of the head needs protection.


Football and hockey helmets protect the ears, for example, but bicycle helmets do not. According to Parks, while in-line skaters and bicyclists experience similar levels of impact when they crash, in-line skaters hit the back of their heads more often than do bicyclists.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agrees. It issued a statement urging freestyle skaters and skateboarders to use helmets specifically made for these sports because they need even more coverage for the back of the head.


Is there any time that a person should avoid wearing a helmet? Yes, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Children should not wear helmets on playground equipment, the commission said. The agency made the unusual recommendation after a 3-year-old Pennsylvania boy died when his helmet became wedged in a small opening on play equipment. He was hanged by the helmet strap as he tried to wiggle through the opening.

Experts also say that “novelty” helmets should be avoided because many do not have shock-absorbing material. These helmets often come in sleek designs resembling Roman gladiator helmets or vintage war helmets. Consumers should determine whether these helmets are Department of Transportation-approved before they purchase them. Most are not.