The idea idea behind motorcycle helmet design has been basically the same since Dr. Eric Gardner ordered the first prototypes in 1914. Just as your skull protects your brain from damage in minor impacts, a motorcycle helmet’s shell protects your brain from more serious impacts. Manufacturers can change the materials used, or the shape of the helmet, but ultimately, they’re doing the same thing: Protecting the brain from blunt force trauma.
Enter MIPS. Based in Sweden, MIPS is designing helmet technology that goes beyond simple blunt force protection. After studying how brain injuries occur, MIPS has developed a system that also reduces risk of rotational damage. With this design, your brain is protected from bumps, but also from twisting forces.
Sounds interesting, but this technology is hardly taking the motorcycle world by storm. MIPS believes they have a very worthwhile and helpful product, though, and the company is keen to get the word out, even flying out-of-country journos to their Swedish facility, to explain the design. That wasn’t possible in The Year Of Our COVID, 2021, so instead, company insiders gave me a virtual tour of MIPS’ Swedish HQ. Here’s what I found out:
MIPS has been around a while
I had never seen MIPS motorcycle helmets before 2020, but the company’s roots go all the way back to the mid-1990s. At that time, founders Peter Halldin of the Swedish Royal Institute of Techhnology and neurosurgeon Dr. Hans von Holst began collaborating on improved helmet design, with the intention of reducing injuries from rotational force. MIPS says 65-77 percent of brain injuries are caused by rotational forces, and the damage isn’t always an immediately-visible concussion—sometimes the damage manifests itself years down the road in the form of Alzheimer’s disease, or other issues.
In 2001, MIPS’ founders published their first paper detailing their research in a scientific publication. From there, MIPS actually ventured into the world of helmet manufacturing, building an equestrian helmet designed to protect from rotational forces. After that plan didn’t work out, MIPS moved on to become an “ingredient brand.” MIPS no longer manufacturers helmets; instead, it designs safety tech that it licences out to other helmet manufacturers. To do that, MIPS takes a CAD file from a manufacturer, and designs an anti-rotational liner fitted to that manufacturer’s helmet shell.
MIPS mimics your body’s built-in protection
Standard helmets protect from impact the same way that your skull does—the liner and shell offer rigid resistance to impact. MIPS takes that idea a step further, by mimicking the internal ‘sliding” effect that protects your brain from rotational forces.
Inside your head, there’s a layer of cerebrospinal fluid between your brain and your skull. This fluid allows your brain to “slide” inside your skull, offering some protection against twisting. However, MIPS says that while your body does have this built-in protection against rotational force, it isn’t as effective as your head’s anti-impact protection. This could help explain why so many brain injuries are linked to rotational force.
That’s where MIPS’ technology comes in. Basically, MIPS designs a liner-within-a-liner, sitting between the helmet’s rigid EPS anti-impact layer, and your head. That’s the same idea as the cerebrospinal fluid, which sits between your skull and your brain. Like that cerebrospinal fluid, the MIPS layer allows minimal rotational movement while retaining the helmet’s impact protection. It’s still a tight fit; an impact won’t let your head won’t rattle around inside the helmet. However, with MIPS technology, there’s 10-15 millimetres of slip between the head and the helmet. The design does not eliminate rotational force, but dampens it, protecting the brain from twisting damage.
MIPS has a unique helmet testing procedure
MIPS’ goal is to provide protection that existing helmet designs don’t offer. To that end, MIPS conducts testing that other moto manufacturers don’t do, and it tests the same helmets with and without its rotational impact protection installed.
Most helmet testing involves impacts to the helmet shell at a 90-degree angle. MIPS testing involves dropping the helmet onto an impact plate, with a 45-degree impact surface. MIPS says this is the most common angle for bike crash impacts. For its motorcycle helmets, MIPS uses an impact speed of 7.5 metres/second. Accelerometers built into a dummy head measure the physical forces that result from that impact.
MIPS tests helmets on three axes: X (rear-to-front), Y (ear-to-ear) and Z (vertical). MIPS also notes that the human brain responds to rotational trauma differently along each axis, with X (rear-to-front) and Z (vertical) axes causing more damage.
Once the helmet has run through the test rig, MIPS analyzes the effect of the impact. MIPS has run thousands of these tests on a wide variety of helmets and head sizes—see the procedure below, performed on a bicycle helmet.
Having watched a few of these tests performed on motorcycle helmets during MIPS’ virtual facility tour and chatted with the company’s staff, it’s obvious that the company is extremely thorough, and genuinely wants to improve helmet safety, not just sell products.
MIPS is widespread, but still breaking into the moto world
Before 2019, I don’t think I’d seen a MIPS motorcycle helmet anywhere. However, the technology is becoming increasingly wide-spread. MIPS licences its technology for makers of industrial, equestrian, and bicycle helmets; you’re more likely to see the tech there right now than you are in the motorcycle world (the first MIPS helmet I owned was a Bell bicycle helmet). MIPS says that there were 729 helmet designs in total using MIPS tech in 2020, with more than 20 million units sold.
Again, the technology is still breaking into the world of motorcycles. Currently, Bell, LS2, KLIM, Z1R, O’Neal, Thor, Fox, and ICON manufacturer street or offroad motorcycle helmets with MIPS liners, along with several other smaller manufacturers that North Americans might not be familiar with (see a list here). Some MIPS-equipped helmets are high-end, but many are reasonably-priced; MIPS itself says its technology increases a helmet’s price by about $50, which most riders should be able to afford as a one-time expense. Most of us aren’t replacing our helmets on a regular basis.
I’ve personally tested only one moto helmet with MIPS, the Bell MX-9 Adventure (see review here). While the MIPS liner feels different from a standard motorcycle helmet, the difference was completely unobjectionable, and a small price to pay for the added safety.
In the future, MIPS technology is something I’ll place a priority on, when selecting a helmet. While I can and will test just about any sort of moto gear, if I’m grabbing a helmet off the shelf based on my own preferences, I’ll go MIPS. The extra protection is worth having, and so far, I haven’t seen any downsides.
For more details on MIPS, visit its website.