We all hate wearing masks, don’t we? And yet we wear masks to protect other people. I think it’s true also that we kind of hate (or at least used to) wearing seatbelts in the car. And yet we wear seatbelts because it is the law, and because we know it might save our lives one day. Young children often struggle with the need to be strapped in, and many parents I’m sure have struggled with a squirming toddler in the child safety seat.
When it comes to cycle helmets, I am that squirming toddler in a safety seat. I look across the water, at civilised countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, and I note that people ride bicycles in regular clothing, usually without a helmet. They do this because the real threat on the road is the car, and if you segregate cyclists from cars, everybody is safer.
I was on my bike and setting out from work the other day and – no more than 3 metres away from me – an elderly driver just pulled out of a junction into my path. I was wearing a helmet and I had my (bright) front light on, and he actually did see me. His window was down and he apologised as he continued to pull out in front of me forcing me to apply the brakes and stop in the middle of the road. ‘Sorry,’ he said, before driving about 15 metres down the road and turning right. ‘Are you though?’ I shouted after him, knowing he could hear me through his open window. ‘Because you still pulled out, didn’t you?’
He saw me and could have stopped but decided not to. Why? Because, in his mind, he didn’t want to be behind a cyclist. For 15 metres. He didn’t want to be delayed, in case I was slow at covering that 15 metres? And ignoring the fact that there were hundreds of schoolchildren around, and coaches and buses, and loads of other cars trying to pull over and pick up kids too lazy to walk. But none of that mattered. None of those other vehicles or hundreds of people were going to get in his way: no, it was the cyclist he needed to get ahead of. For 15 metres.
That’s one incident in a lifetime of watching motorists behave like dicks, especially when bicycles are around. Pass me like you’d pass a horse, I always want to say. But people on horses are worth more than people on bicycles, and I don’t make the rules.
I always wear a helmet when cycling to work because there are young people around, and I wouldn’t want to be accused of setting a bad example. Also, I never want to have the were you wearing a helmet? conversation when a white van driver knocks me into a ditch. But I hate it, and I only feel vulnerable around motor vehicles. But–but-but cyclists are always in the way. Yes we are, just like children and dogs and horses and tractors. You share the road, you do not have exclusive rights, and the law does not recognise your desire to drive fast in order to arrive home 45 seconds quicker than you otherwise would.
All of which leads me to this: the world’s safest cycling helmet isn’t a helmet. Furthermore, most of the helmets available to buy in the shops – even the very expensive ones – are more or less useless in a crash.
Among helmets rated as below average in performance by Folksam Insurance are the £130 Kask Mojito and the £100 Lazer Urbanize. Then there is the distinctly average Poc Kortal at £220. Among those who come out at decently above average are helmets costing as little as £45 (Specialized Align II), so buying a helmet is a complete crap shoot unless you do your research.
Which brings us to the safest of them all, the one that is not just twice as good but eight times as good as the average bike helmet: Hövding, the airbag for your head.
The independent French testing institute Certimoov at the University of Strasbourg has said that,
‘The airbag’s protection against brain injury is better than any other helmet ever tested by the testing institute.’
I liked the idea of this, wearing something around your neck rather than on your head. I liked the idea of my head not getting hot, and I liked the idea of not looking like a dork, and of not dealing with the over complicated fiddly strap arrangements. Most of all, I liked the idea of something that was actually going to do some good in a crash.
But the price is a bit eye-watering, especially if you’ve never spent more than £50 or £60 on a helmet. But you acknowledge that you’re wearing it to protect your brain, and then have to wrestle with the idea of spending almost as much as some people want to spend on a bike—for a helmet. The Hövding web site has it at £349, but the (sole) UK reseller has it for £249, at least for now.
So I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years. And just last week, I was prompted by the latest research to bite the bullet.
The first surprise/disappointment when the Hövding arrives is how heavy the box is. Out of the helmet frying pan into the fire of a heavy weight around your neck? Oof. More on the weight to come.
The first step is to charge it up using the supplied USB cable. The connector appears to be non-standard, so don’t lose it! Once fully charged, you adjust the circumference to your particular size. Then zip on the cover – other covers are available, including one with glass beads to shine bright white in the dark. This is so that motorists have an additional thing to ignore when they pull out in front of you.
You then zip up at the front of your neck (something I found quite tricky, because you can’t really see what you’re doing.
The Hövding needs to be activated to work, which is something you don’t do until you are in situ on the bike and ready to pedal off. Activation is a simple matter of pulling a tab across and clicking it in. A reassuring sound plays.
There is of course an app. You can connect the Hövding to your phone and it will report on the battery charge (it supposedly offers 15 hours of run time) but also text home in the event of an accident.
This sounds useful but I don’t really want to run this app when I ride if it means not running Strava. I’ll have to give it some thought. The Hövding app does track your rides, but if you’ve invested time and effort into Strava, it’s a decision.
Which brings us to the riding experience.
The good news is that the weight of the thing seems to disappear when you are on the bike and in the riding posture. The centre of gravity seems to work in its favour. I wore it first on a fairly muggy but grey day, and I have to say I felt conscious of it around my neck the whole time. On the other hand, it was a novel experience and I was bound to feel its presence.
It’s important to note that Hövding is designed for urban commuters and leisure riding, and is not going to be for road racers and mountain bikers. I was somewhat concerned that the heavily potholed roads of my commuting route might set off the airbag, but that didn’t happen (🤞🏻). The centre of gravity effect I mentioned above would not work for a road rider in the drops, and the shocks and jumps of a mountain bike ride might be too violent.
I wasn’t sure how much freedom of movement I’d have, so that’s something to get used to. Leaning down for my drink in the bottle cage felt odd, with the increased weight of the Hövding on the back of my neck making itself known as I bent forward. And looking over my shoulder to check the closeness of traffic felt awkward. Except that it often does, and I have got a trapped nerve in my shoulder at the moment, which doesn’t help.
In the end, this feels like more to get used to than I was hoping, but I am going to persevere. Faced with a choice between a possibly ineffective and uncomfortable bike helmet and a slightly uncomfortable neck collar airbag that actually works, it’s a no-brainer.