A revolution in riding safety science is happening at a small laboratory in Sweden. Jalopnik has always been a proponent of wearing all the right safety equipment while doing the sketchiest shit, so when the folks at MIPS asked if I wanted to take a peek behind the curtain at how the potentially life-saving sausage is made, I jumped at the opportunity. I recently hopped on a Zoom call for a virtual tour of the lab to see how all of the company’s impact-absorbing slip layers help reduce brain strain in a crash. It was as insightful as it was impactful, pun absolutely intended.
Swedish neuroscientist Hans von Holst, the story goes, grew tired of seeing his patients entered into surgery with severe brain injury despite having worn the correct head protection gear in a crash. For his entire professional life he’d studied head injuries, but in 1996 he began shifting his focus toward understanding prevention. Partnering with a researcher at the Swedish Royal Institute, Peter Halldin, von Holst set about studying how helmets were designed and constructed to understand how and why helmeted head injuries happen.
Okay, so your brain is floating around inside your skull in a bath of cerebrospinal fluid that keeps your grey matter from flopping around. It’s a thin natural protective layer to slow the movement of your brain relative to your skull. When you bang your head to a metal song, it’s what keeps your brain from being injured. MIPS wanted to add a second layer between your skull and your helmet to do something similar. The scientists worked together to develop a slip layer that allows 10-15 millimeters of omnidirectional float on impact.
Traditionally, helmets have been developed with a focus on impact protection. Don’t get me wrong, thousands of lives have been saved by helmets, be they on motorcycles, in motorsport, on horses, skiing, or cycling. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep trying to improve the process and potentially reduce brain damage. According to their research, the first 10 miliseconds of an impact are the most crucial for preventing brain injury, as that’s the point when the potential load on your head explodes to over 1500 pounds.
Traditional helmets are tested by dropping them vertically onto a flat surface, which forces manufacturers to build helmets to meet that standard. Unfortunately crashing in the real world is rarely a matter of dropping your full weight onto the top of your helmet at speed. You’re much more likely to hit the ground obliquely, which when combined with the friction of asphalt, generally means you’re going to get some rotational force thrust onto the thinkin’ meat in your dome.
It took until 2009 for the first helmets to be equipped with what MIPS calls the Brain Protection System, and it wasn’t implemented in motorcycle helmets until 2016. These days the technology is licensed to more than twenty motorcycle helmet brands and present in dozens of different models.
Oh man, what isn’t in the lab? Elephants, a reserve of gold bricks, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Okay, so they don’t have everything, but MIPS has everything you need to properly test a helmet in a crash. There are accurately weighted replicas of human heads in several sizes, each one fitted with extremely sensitive, uh, sensors. Helmet and head are fitted inside one of these awesome drop rigs. Each one has some high intensity lights and some extremely fast cameras to observe the helmet’s fall and impact.
Through my digital tour of the site, the MIPS folks showed me some of the early test rigs, like a horizontal “crash sled” that looked like it was cobbled together from pieces of a rowing machine and various other workout equipment. Compared to the advanced multi-axis drop test machines the company uses now, it’s clear to see how far this process has come in just 25 years.
The data churned out by these machines is poured into building safer helmets. You don’t want to think about crashing, or about what happens to your head when you do, but that’s all these researchers ever do. The helmeted head’s fall can be sped up or slowed down, and the angle of the impact can also be changed, as well as the placement of the head in relation to the ground. After multiple impacts on multiple prototypical helmets, both with and without the Brain Protection System installed, the team can analyze the data and come to a number of conclusions.
I’m no scientist, but even I can see the advantage of repeatable lab-created testing before doing any real-world riding. The fine sensors inside that fake head can recreate data using a finite element method model of the human brain, detecting movement and sloshing in a realistic pattern that can be visualized with color patterns delineating strain levels. These machines can even be used to reconstruct real life accidents from high-speed racing footage. It’s pretty trick stuff.
Obviously I’m quite aware that MIPS showed me all of this impressive stuff to convince me that I need to convince all of you to buy a helmet that makes use of the technology. I was fairly convinced even before I saw all of the testing equipment.
I’ve always been a proponent of wearing the right gear, but more importantly buying gear you’ll actually wear. It’s important to buy a good quality helmet with comfortable padding and well-tested impact protection, that’s where you start. If the helmet is uncomfortable or dorky looking, riders are less likely to wear them, and any protection is better than none. Wearing a helmet, even one without MIPS helps protect against fractures, epidural hematomas, and contusions. Add the MIPS BPS and you’ll help further protect against concussions, subdural hematomas, and diffuse axonal injuries, common with motorcycle crashes.
Based on graphs showed to me by MIPS, the system offers minimal improvement in brain protection during a traditional helmet test, where the helmet dropped vertically on a horizontal surface. It’s there, but it’s quite small. The big improvement comes in the rotational impacts, which are much more likely in the real world, as we discussed before. You can see a reduction in the duration of brain movement as well as a reduction in the speed of brain movement. Both of which are very good things.
There are a ton of upsides to buying a helmet with MIPS BPS tech in it.
The primary downsides of MIPS BPS are cost and weight.
As we all know, weight is a massive enemy of comfort when it comes to helmets. A nice carbon fiber bucket will be much nicer to wear for hours at a time than a hefty lid. That said, I have and do frequently ride with a chunky modular Shoei that weighs what feels like several hundred pounds. Adding MIPS seems like a non-issue for me. Particularly because the MIPS system is a thin sheet of plastic that weighs no more than a few ounces.
Depending on the brand of helmet you buy, there’s a range from minimal cost to zero cost associated with the MIPS package. Bell, for example, offers very few helmets without MIPS. Icon charges the same $330 for an Airflite Jewel as it does an Airflite MIPS Jewel. Even for brands that charge an extra ten percent for their MIPS helmets, it’s probably worth the upcharge to, you know, potentially avoid brain injury.
I’m not going to tell you how to spend your money, but I’m convinced by the MIPS pitch, and will be upgrading to a MIPS equipped lid when I buy my next brain bucket. I guess I won’t be throwing out the ones I have, but my Shoei probably only has another riding season in it anyway. If you’re cashing out your chips on a five year old helmet or something, now’s the time to look for something with MIPS. And please, for the love of god, don’t buy another matte black helmet. It’s time for that trend to end.