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Who should you trust? Helmet makers dispute Consumer Reports findings

LONDON (BRAIN) — The maker of a helmet model that failed a recent Consumer Reports test said the results are “fake news.” He also questioned whether the publication’s in-house testing should be given more weight than the multiple national standards his helmets have been certified to pass.

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Consumer Reports, operated by the non-profit organization Consumers Union, told BRAIN it stands by its tests, which it said are intended to identify differences between helmets, not to certify they reach a minimum level of performance.

CR announced July 2 that three helmets had failed its testing. The $199 Bontrager Ballista MIPS failed because its buckles broke, while a Woom youth helmet and a Morpher folding helmet each failed the magazine’s impact tests, which are similar to the CPSC test required for sale in the U.S. All three helmets are certified for sale in the U.S. according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission; the manufacturers said they passed multiple in-house and independent tests as well. 

Jeff Woolf, founder and CEO of Morpher, told BRAIN that CR’s article giving the Morpher helmet a “Don’t Buy-Safety Risk” rating will “wreck” his company.

He said he has sold tens of thousands of Morpher helmets, which fold to reduce space for commuters. The helmets have been certified to pass multiple standards, including CPSC and European standards.

“(Consumer Reports) are really calling the whole CPSC verification system into question,” Woolf, based in London, told BRAIN in a phone interview. “I think it’s kind of fake news actually; I don’t think they should be doing this. Who says their test is better than the CPSC test? It’s a terrible thing to say.”

The $149 Morpher helmet is manufactured in China by Strategic Sports, a Hong Kong-based company that manufactures for many well-known bike helmet brands. The Strategic Sports website says its clients include Bell Sports, Giro, Cannondale, Abus, Fox, Schwinn and Decathlon.

“I think it’s kind of fake news … Who says their test is better than the CPSC test? It’s a terrible thing to say” — Morpher founder Jeff Woolf

Woolf said that besides testing required for certification, Strategic Sports tests production samples and has never failed a Morpher helmet. He also said the company has never received a report of an impact damage breaking the helmet or any injury from impact damage affecting any user.

“(Strategic Sports) don’t think it was done correctly (by Consumer Reports). They don’t think our helmet will fail that test and they test thousands of helmets.”

He also said he was given only a few minutes to talk to a CR reporter before the article ran, and doesn’t remember telling the reporter that he found the rest results “hugely worrying,” as he was quoted as saying in the article.

Trek has had a more measured response to the test results, releasing a statement that did not accuse Consumer Reports of fake news but that pointed out that, “As certified laboratories have been unable to replicate Consumer Reports’ findings, we believe that they are not indicative of the performance or safety or the Ballista MIPS helmet.” Trek reported the results to the CPSC.

In 2006 Consumer Reports failed a Trek helmet model for not meeting impact tests, and Trek later recalled that model

Mathias Ihlenfeld, Woom USA’s owner and CEO, said he was “very surprised” by the test findings because the $69 Woom Kids Helmet passes all required safety tests. He said he was pulling the model from sale while he looked into the situation.

Consumer Reports stands by its testing procedure and practice.

In an interview with BRAIN, the magazine’s lead helmet testing engineer, Peter Anzalone, said its tests are nearly identical to the CPSC standard and arguably easier to pass than CPSC in several ways.

Retention failures rare

In CR’s testing, helmet retention test failures have been rare, but the Bontrager failure was far from the first.

In 2017, Protec recalled some helmets following a buckle failure that was first identified by Consumer Reports. 

In 2014, Cannondale challenged Consumer Reports’ results when the magazine broke buckles on its helmets in its testing. However, Cannondale switched to a different buckle design that passed CR’s tests in 2016

CR’s retention system test is nearly identical to the CPSC test. It drops the same weight (4 kg) from the same height (60cm) as the CPSC. It also uses the same head form and the same configuration of metal bars that simulate a human jaw bone. CR measures strap stretch and watches for any failures in the system. While some helmets have failed this test because of broken buckles, others have had the straps pull out of the helmet (CR’s test procedure is shown in a video at the bottom of this article).

Anzalone was reluctant to speculate why the Bontrager helmet buckles failed in CR’s lab while the company said they’ve never failed in its own testing, independent testing, or in the field.

But he said subtle manufacturing changes could create a batch of buckles that were more likely to break. Once a helmet has achieved CPSC certification, re-testing is not required unless there is a significant design change. However, most manufacturers continue to test production samples on a regular basis in in-house labs and independent labs.

CR’s impact tests should be easier to pass

CR also models its impact tests on the CPSC and ASTM tests. It uses the same head forms as CPSC and drops them from the same height onto a flat anvil. The CPSC and ASTM tests are more rigorous because they require tests of helmets at varying temperatures and while wet, while CR tests only at ambient temperature and dry. The CPSC and ASTM also drop the helmets on several different anvil shapes, while CR tests with one anvil, a flat one. Finally, the CPSC tests all helmet sizes, while CR tests just one size.

“I don’t think we are claiming our testing is better, but it’s for a different purpose” — Maria Rerecich, Consumer Reports

There is one part of the drop test that could create some variability: the CPSC standard (and CR’s protocol) calls for the test operator to drop the helmet on the anvil in the area of the helmet that looks most vulnerable, within the defined coverage area.

“We may have chosen different impact spots than the manufacturer or their labs,” Anzalone said.

In the CPSC standard and CR protocol, each helmet is dropped four times: on the front, rear, top and sides. Each impact spot has to be a defined distance apart so the same part of the helmet isn’t impacted more than once. The Morpher helmet consistently failed the rear impact test, Anzalone said.

Different aims

Morpher’s Woolf said Consumer Reports’ results cast doubt on the CPSC’s system, which was developed over the course of years through consensus of dozens of engineers across industry, government and academia. He said CR’s testing procedure, by comparison, is “ad hoc.”

Maria Rerecich, Consumer Reports’ senior director of product testing, noted that CR wants to compare helmets, not certify they meet a minimum requirement.

“I don’t think we are claiming our testing is better, but it’s for a different purpose,” she said. “Testing for compliance answers the question, ‘do these helmets meet some level that the government and manufactures have agreed is the right level?’

“We are looking for where some helmets differ from others, even when they all pass. And if we do find a helmet that is not reaching the standards … our message is, ‘don’t buy this, there are better choices.'”

So who do we trust?

Randy Swart, director of the non-profit Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, said he would be concerned about the helmets that failed CR’s impact tests, but less concerned about the buckle failures.

“They are probably OK,” he said of the helmets that failed the impact tests, but, he said, the failures might indicate those helmets were close to the limits of the certification tests they previously passed.

“We tell people to stay away from helmets like that. Most manufacturers add some margin to account for quality control and to make sure that all labs will pass them. Consumer Reports’ lab is not certified and they may do things a little differently so these helmets might have been just close enough to the margin to fail.”

Swart said the buckle failures are less of a concern because he’s never heard of a buckle failing in the field, even though Consumer Reports has managed to break them in its labs.

“We tell people to stay away from helmets like that” — Randy Swart, BHSI

“The buckle test is really severe: some say too severe,” he said. “If a manufacturer uses a strap that is a little stiffer, that could cause a buckle to break (in CR’s test), but we don’t consider it a real problem.”

But Swart said retailers should have no legal liability concerns about selling any of the helmets that pass the CPSC standard.

“The big question (for retailers) is ‘who would be testifying for you in court?'”

Helmets that meet the CPSC standard have passed tests at certified labs, while the CR lab is not certified, he pointed out. “Retailers shouldn’t be too concerned,” he said.

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