Buy a bike helmet and you probably assume it meets all the required government safety standards for protecting your head. But that’s not necessarily the case, if you shop online.
A recent investigation by Consumer Reports found that potentially unsafe helmets — not legal to sell in the U.S. — are “widely available” online.
“Helmets need to comply with Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standards to show that they protect against skull fracture,” said Kevin Loria, a Consumer Reports health reporter. “Part of that certification includes posting a label saying that it passed this testing. But there are a lot of helmets for sale that don't have these labels and so they may not be certified and should not legally be for sale.”
Consumer Reports (CR) bought 13 helmets in a variety of styles without the required CPSC label from four online marketplaces: Amazon, Sears, AliExpress (a subsidiary of Chinese retail powerhouse Alibaba) and LightInTheBox (a global retailer with headquarters in Beijing).
Some of the helmets Consumer Reports bought meet the European “CE” standard which is different from the U.S. standards. The CPSC requires helmets to withstand a stronger impact.
The lack of a label — or the wrong safety label — makes the helmet non-compliant and therefore illegal to sell in the U.S.
“CR is not saying these helmets are definitely unsafe, something that can’t be determined without putting them through testing,” Loria noted in his report on these findings. “But the fact that they came without the required label indicates they may not have been tested according to CPSC standards.”
Dr. Fred Rivara, vice chair of the department of pediatrics at the University of Washington, is an expert on injury prevention who has studied bike helmets for more than 30 years.
“I’m shocked that there are helmets sold here the United States that don't meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission standards. This is crazy,” Rivara told NBC News BETTER. “I'm also surprised that the CPSC allows those things to be sold here.”
The CPSC reacted to Rivara's comment with this statement:
“CPSC put the mandatory safety standard for bicycle helmets into place to protect consumers. Manufacturers and importers are required to meet the standard. Firms are legally required to do the testing to ensure their helmets meet CPSC’s mandatory helmet safety standards before they are sold in the United States. We do not test all products before they are in the marketplace. When CPSC finds a non-compliant product at the ports, in the marketplace, or online, we take appropriate action.”
CPSC regulations require the following information to be on the helmet label:
- A statement saying:“Complies with U.S. CPSC Safety Standard for Bicycle Helmets for Persons Age 5 and Older” or “Complies with U.S. CPSC Safety Standard for Bicycle Helmets for Persons Age 1 and Older (Extended Head Coverage).”
- The name, address and telephone number of the manufacturer or importer.
- Information, such as the serial number, that identifies the month and year the helmet was made and the production lot.
“Consumers should beware of bicycle helmets that do not have a label indicating they meet CPSC’s mandatory safety standard. Helmets that do not meet the CPSC safety standard may not protect your head in a crash,” the CPSC explained.
Online retailers respond to Consumer Report's findings
NBC News BETTER contacted Amazon, Sears, AliExpress and LightInTheBox about Consumer Reports’ findings.
Amazon, Sears and AliExpress said the helmets in question were sold by third-party companies that were contractually obligated to comply with all relevant laws and regulations. The three websites said those helmets are no longer available. LightInTheBox did not respond.
Helmet manufacturers contacted by NBC News BETTER commended Amazon, Sears and AliExpress for taking action, but pointed out that there are so many unsafe helmets on the market that this won’t make even a small dent in what they describe as “a really serious” problem.
Bicycle helmets are important safety gear; they 'prevent the occurrence of up to 88 percent of serious brain injuries,' according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Why buying bike helmets online can be risky
So, it’s important to buy one that meets federal safety standards. If you shop for a helmet online, you can’t check for safety certification labels before you buy.
There’s also a significant risk of getting a counterfeit or a generic knockoff helmet. The knockoffs look similar to the brand-name helmet, but without the logo and all the safety features designed into the genuine product.
These helmets are cheap and have great styling, but they won’t protect your head in a crash.
“We’ve never seen a counterfeit or knockoff that performed well in the lab,” said Thom Parks, senior director of product safety at Bell Sports. “We’ve seen some that in normal kinds of accidents might work fine, but it is typically just hitting it to the standardized impact (required for certification), it’s very easy to get failures, sometimes significant failures.”
Andrew Love, head of brand security at Specialized Bicycles (which also makes helmets), is focused on getting these inferior helmets off the market and educating consumer about what to look for when they go shopping.
“I’m sure people are dying out there who were wearing counterfeit or generic knockoff helmets,” Love said.
Specialized has a Counterfeit Awareness section on its website explaining the problem and showing customers how to spot the fakes.
“When shopping for towels or socks or whatever, it’s fine to go online and find a great deal,” Love told NBC News BETTER. “But when it's something that could protect your brain in an impact, I highly recommend going to a local bike shop or major established retailer because in the U.S. counterfeits don't make their way into their supply chains.”
Another benefit of going to a local store: You can make sure the helmet fits properly. A helmet that doesn’t fit properly or isn’t worn correctly won’t provide adequate protection.
If you shop online, Consumer Reports recommends making the purchase directly from the manufacturer or authorized seller or reputable retailers with an online presence, such as REI and Performance Bicycle.
Consumer Reports Bike Helmet Buying Guide shows how to properly fit and wear a helmet. You might also want to check out its Best Bike Helmets of 2019. Three helmets recently failed CR’s tests and are rated “Don’t Buy: Safety Risk.”