You can almost spot the yellow sticker and plastic liners from a mile away. The distinctive features of MIPS technology have become almost ubiquitous with cycling helmets. Everyone from WorldTour pros to casual commuters can be seen wearing a MIPS helmet, but what does that actually mean?
First up, MIPS stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System and, in this article, we dive into the science behind it, why it has become so popular among the cycling community, why so many of the best road bike helmets feature it and debate the pros and cons of MIPS helmets.
Defining MIPS helmets
MIPS is a thin slip-plane layer of material incorporated into a helmet that allows for relative motion between the helmet and head in all directions (hence multi-directional). The purpose of MIPS is to reduce rotational motion on the head – and thus, the brain – in the event of impact, by allowing the helmet to rotate independently.
In more basic terms, MIPS technology allows the helmet to move around your head during a crash or other impact. Of course, the helmet doesn’t move freely, or there would be no point in wearing the helmet at all – MIPS technology allows for about 10-15mm of rotational movement.
In theory, wearing a MIPS helmet lessens the chance for brain injury. That’s what the technology claims but are MIPS helmets actually “safer”?
Origin of MIPS technology
Swedish neurosurgeon, Hans von Holst, is said to be the father of MIPS technology. Alongside Peter Halldin, a researcher at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology, von Holst discovered that human brains are much better at handling linear (straight-on) impacts than oblique ones which create rotational strain. In sports such as cycling, skiing and horseback riding – where helmets are widely used – the pair found that most impacts created rotational forces on the brain, leading to sometimes severe injuries, even when the athlete was wearing a helmet.
Through years of research and testing, von Holst and Halldin discovered that by putting two low friction layers inside a helmet, they could create relative motion between the helmet and head that could reduce rotational injuries on the brain.
The ‘safe’ helmet debate
The list of helmet brands that have partnered with MIPS is almost endless – the MIPS website shows 121 brands that use its safety system, and its use extends from aero and time trial helmets to downhill mountain biking lids via road, gravel, cross-country, commuting and more.
With so much traction in the industry, surely it can’t be all fluff, right?
Here’s where it gets complicated: helmet safety is difficult to test. You can’t give people a prototype helmet, ask them to crash while wearing it, and report the findings. Plus, every crash is different. Every impact between helmet and ground is unique – the road surface, the type and magnitude of force, and the rider’s unique anatomical attributes could all influence the severity of injury.
Mostly due to liability and legal issues, brands who label their helmet as “safer” could subject themselves to lawsuits from unhappy or injured customers. MIPS thoroughly test their technology in all sorts of accident scenarios, and have come up with a few key statistics that separate their own technology from non-MIPS helmets.
MIPS claims that a MIPS-equipped helmet is at least 10 per cent better at handling rotational impact than the same helmet without MIPS. In fact, 10 per cent is the manufacturing baseline for a MIPS helmet. Those that are less than 10 per cent better at handling rotational impact are not allowed to be branded as MIPS, even if it features the brand’s liner inside.
This creates a confusing conundrum because MIPS won’t specify which brands or helmets are better at handling rotational impacts. For example, MIPS helmet A could be 50 per cent better at reducing such an impact, while MIPS helmet B could be 12 per cent better. But the consumer doesn’t know that – they’ll only know that both helmets carry the MIPS label.
Part of this is due to the way that helmet safety tests are conducted. Helmets must pass a series of standardised tests before being released to consumers, which include high-velocity impacts, drops on flat, jagged, or curved surfaces, and more. But the frustrating part is that the helmets simply pass or fail – they don’t get a safety rating – so there’s no way for consumers to know which is safer.
But of course, what we do know is that a MIPS-equipped helmet is (at least 10 per cent) better at handling rotational than the same helmet without MIPS, which suggests that if there’s a choice, go for MIPS.
However, when you’re comparing two different helmets from two different brands, there’s no way to tell which one is “safer.” Helmet A could be MIPS-equipped, while Helmet B is not. But if the two helmets are from two different brands, then Helmet B could still be better at handling rotational impact, even though Helmet A has MIPS. There’s no way for consumers to know.
Kask, for one, does not make a MIPS-equipped helmet. I’ll spare you the word soup of Kask’s official statement, and summarise it to say that Kask tests all of its helmets vigorously with its own ‘KASK WG11 rotational impact testing’ process, and that they successfully pass the international standardised tests which measure the rotational energy created by oblique impacts – In other words, Kask believes its helmets are completely capable of handling rotational impacts without MIPS.
Pros of MIPS helmets
This section will be kept reasonably short, since there’s just one obvious Pro to MIPS-equipped helmets: a claimed – and potentially guaranteed – increase in safety.
We say ‘potentially guaranteed’ for reasons explained above. If you’re comparing two like-for-like helmets and the only difference is the MIPS liner, then according to MIPS, you’re getting a minimum increase in impact protection of 10 per cent.
Cons of MIPS helmets
As for the downsides, MIPS helmets are generally more expensive but since we can’t compare the “safeness” of helmets directly, there’s no way to tell what we’re actually paying extra for. Sure, we’re paying for the technology and the promise that this MIPS-equipped version is better at handling rotational impact than its non-MIPS cousin, but that’s about it.
Before the MIPS SL was introduced, MIPS-equipped helmets were less breathable too, since many of the vents were blocked – partially – by the slip plane. MIPS SL is a much lighter-touch iteration, which leaves vents free to do what they’re supposed to, but be aware of this if buying an older-model helmet.
It is also important to note that MIPS-equipped helmets can occasionally also fit differently. They can be tighter and smaller because of the extra plastic slip-plane layer between the helmet’s shell and its pads. So if you’re considering making the switch to a MIPS-equipped helmet, we recommend trying it on for size first.
Should I get a MIPS helmet?
The bottom line is this: modern-day helmets – MIPS-equipped or not – are rigorously tested and have made it through a gauntlet of high-impact, high-velocity crash testing and onto the consumer market.
While we can’t define if a helmet is “safer,” we can say that a helmet is a lot better at protecting your brain than nothing. A helmet can save your life, regardless of if it has MIPS or not.