The Inflatable Helmet

Swedish engineers have invented an air bag for your head.
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Joe Lertola/Bryan Christie Design

In 2010, bicycle-related injuries led to nearly 800 deaths in the U.S. and at least 2,100 deaths in the European Union, the majority resulting from head trauma. Though helmets are an effective means of protecting against head injury, a recent study found that fewer than half of cyclists in some urban areas wear them, perhaps because helmets can be inconvenient, uncomfortable, and unstylish.

But what if a helmet didn’t have to look like a helmet? A new Swedish design called the Hövding is essentially an air bag for your head. Uninflated, it looks like a collar zipped at the neck. In the event of an accident, sensors activate a helium-filled cushion that envelops and shields the cyclist’s head. While traditional helmets absorb impact by cracking at first hit, the Hövding can withstand several impacts during a crash. And, unlike most helmets, it covers the wearer’s neck as well as head. To ensure that the air bag, which is not reusable, activates only during an accident, an algorithm distinguishes between the jerk of a sudden stop and that of, say, a cyclist getting sideswiped by a car.

At more than $500, the Hövding is not yet a realistic alternative to your standard $50 helmet. But for a flush cyclist who’d rather go bareheaded than strap a Styrofoam shell over her hair—yet would still prefer to keep her skull intact—it’s money well spent. 

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Eleanor Smith is an Atlantic senior associate editor.

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