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Hey, You May Want to Think Twice Before Buying a Smart Bike Helmet

Have you seen those high-tech “smart” bike helmets and thought they looked awesome? I don‘t blame you – the idea is cool. But as your resident tech geek and cycling buddy, let me share some concerns over these trendy new lids before you get too excited.

While smart helmets seem promising, they have some real downsides versus old-fashioned “dumb” helmets. Mainly distraction risks, short battery life, and questions around real-world safety.

I want to help you avoid buyer’s remorse, so here are three big reasons you may want to hold off on a smart helmet for now. And a couple safer alternatives to consider instead.

Why This Matters

Before we dig in, let‘s touch on why helmet choice really matters in the first place. Over 45,000 cyclists were injured in accidents in 2021 alone [1]. And nearly 900 died, with head injuries being the #1 cause [2].

Helmets are estimated to reduce the risk of head injury by up to 60% compared to riding bareheaded [3]. But not all helmets are created equal. Poorly designed or uncertified helmets may not provide the protection you expect.

So choosing a reliable helmet from a trusted brand is critical for any cyclist. With that context, let’s look at why today‘s crop of smart helmets may not be the best choice.

Distracting Tech Can Be Dangerous

The top selling point of smart helmets is integrating high-tech features from your smartphone into your ride. This allows you to do things like:

  • Make hands-free calls
  • Listen to tunes or podcasts
  • Use voice commands for your phone‘s virtual assistant
  • Get audible alerts for text messages, emails, social media etc.

Without ever taking your hands off the handlebars.

Sounds slick in theory. But we all know how distracting it is to try doing these things while in the car. Now imagine dealing with them while navigating traffic, reacting to hazards, and processing all the stimuli of riding a bike on the road.

Even just talking on the phone while cycling has been shown to impair riding abilities. One study saw delayed braking reactions and decreased situational awareness in cyclists on phones [4]. Listening to music also hurts perception and increases unsafe riding behaviors [5].

Smart helmets take all these technology distractions to another level. And it’s your head paying the price if something goes wrong.

Already, distracted cycling is cited in many crashes:

  • Over 30% of cyclist hospitalizations involved a distracted rider or driver [6]
  • One study saw a 4x higher injury risk for cyclists using phones [7]
  • Distraction was the #3 reported factor in fatal cycling accidents [2]

While tech-savvy riders may use discretion, these helmets essentially enable distracted cycling for thousands of casual bikers. That’s like putting a TV in every car dashboard and trusting people not to watch while driving.

Bottom line – smart helmets introduce dangerous distractions that could easily make riding less safe for many.

Limited Battery Life Is Limiting

Here’s an all-too-common experience reported by smart helmet owners:

You’re pumped to ride around and show off your new gadget helmet to friends. You sync up your phone, cue up a playlist, set the volume just right. Then an hour into your ride… everything shuts off.

The battery just died, turning your $200 smart helmet back into a basic lump of plastic and padding. Bummer.

This is the reality for most smart helmets currently on the market. Their batteries generally last 3-5 hours, max. Turning on energy-hogging features like LED lights or voice control expedites the power drain.

And once the battery dies, you’re left with a helmet lacking the smarts you paid for. There’s no fallback “dumb” mode to rely on those fancy integrated headphones and microphones.

Limited run times aren’t too bothersome for quick rides. But they make smart helmets impractical for road trips, long weekend rides, bicycle tours, or daily bike commuting.

Contrast that to a normal helmet that requires zero charging and always provides the same protection and function. No worrying about battery life – just grab and go.

Maybe one day battery capacity will improve to power high-drain features for a full day of riding. But for now, it’s a challenge smart helmets haven’t fully solved.

Unproven Protection & Quality

This is the big one when it comes to avoiding smart helmets. Most come from smaller startups looking to cash in on a trendy new product niche.

The issue is that most of these companies don’t have decades of experience specifically designing and engineering helmets for safety like big cycling brands do.

Established players like Bell, Specialized, Bontrager and Giro have been rigorously testing and refining helmets for maximum protection and impact absorption since the 80s and 90s.

They subject their helmets to stringent certifications and testing protocols like:

  • CPSC – Tests shock absorption, field of vision, strap strength and more
  • EN 1078 – European standards for construction, shock absorption, retention system strength and durability
  • MIPS – Additional protection against angled impacts

Top brands also invest heavily in proprietary designs for optimal ventilation, aerodynamics and coverage. All optimized over years of R&D and athlete feedback.

Most smart helmets just don’t have that pedigree. They cram in the tech but often lack the sophisticated engineering against impacts. Safety sometimes feels like an afterthought.

For example, many smart helmets lack MIPS technology for rotation/angled impact protection. And most don’t publish detailed test results for independent certification standards.

There are also complaints about subpar fit, bulky design and insufficient ventilation compared to performance leaders like Giro or Specialized.

Plus, there just haven’t been enough real-world crash tests to verify if smart helmets perform as well as trusted brands in protecting your head. That proof will take years of use and data to establish.

In the meantime, that uncertainty makes me nervous about relying on a smart helmet to prevent serious head injuries. Don’t you want to maximize safety while rocketing down hills at 30+ MPH?

When it comes to protecting your brain, proven protection should trump flashy features. Most smart helmets can’t provide that same peace of mind – yet.

Two Safer Alternatives to Consider

If I’ve convinced you that mainstream smart helmets may not be the best choice today, you still have options:

1. Lumos Helmet – Smart Yet Subtle

Lumos stands out as one smarter helmet brand that seems to be doing things right. Their smart helmets integrate useful tech features without compromising protection, comfort and quality.

The Lumos Street helmet has built-in LED headlights and brake lights that can be controlled with a handlebar remote. This preserves key visibility benefits of smart helmets without distracting audio components.

It maintains a streamlined design well-suited for long, sweaty rides. Plus it passes certification standards on par with leading traditional helmet brands.

While pricier than a basic helmet, the Lumos hits a nice balance between utility and protection for riders seeking enhanced visibility without going fully smart.

Lumos Helmet Traditional Helmet
Improved visibility from LEDs No visibility aids
Handlebar controls N/A
MIPS for added protection MIPS optional
Trusted brand w/ safety focus Trusted brand
Good sweat-wicking & ventilation Good sweat-wicking & ventilation
Premium price Affordable price

2. Detachable Light – Cheap & Versatile

If maximum visibility is your priority, but you can live without built-in audio, a detachable cycling light can work with any helmet.

Options like the Garmin Varia UT800 deliver powerful visibility day or night, while costing much less than a full smart helmet system.

At just 1.25 ounces, the UT800 attaches securely to any vented helmet and lasts up to 6 hours per charge. It puts out a very noticeable 300 lumens of light on either steady or flashing modes.

For less than $100, you can transform even an entry-level helmet into a visibility powerhouse. No need for a dedicated smart model.

This gives you both excellent head protection and enhanced visibility in one cost-effective package. Pretty smart if you ask me.

Detachable Light Smart Helmet
Great visibility for $100-ish Visibility + audio for $200-300+
Use with any helmet Built into helmet
6 hour battery 3-5 hour battery
299 lumens ~250 lumens
Only 1.25 ounces Noticeably heavier

Tips If You Really Want a Smart Helmet

While I can’t fully endorse smart helmets yet, I get the appeal. If you insist on trying one, here are a few tips:

  • Disable audio features – Turn off music, calls, alerts while riding to avoid distraction risks. Just use the LED visibility.
  • Check for MIPS – Ensure your model has MIPS or similar angled impact protection.
  • Verify certifications – Look for CPSC, CE and other standards to ensure adequate safety testing.
  • Established brands like Lumos – They design for safety first, not just cool features.
  • Go modular – Models with detachable tech components reduce cost to upgrade parts later.

And of course, follow all the usual tips for ensuring proper helmet fit and safe riding!

The Bottom Line

My verdict after evaluating both sides – smart bike helmets seem more hype than practical solution for now. Too many risks and drawbacks versus just enjoying a nice ride with a trusty ol’ helmet.

But I predict the tech will keep improving over the next 3-5 years. Once battery life, distraction risks, and impact protection are on par with traditional lids, sign me up!

For today though, proven veteran brands still offer the smartest choice to protect your head. So I’d hold off until smart helmets mature a bit more.

Stay safe out there and let me know if you have any other gear questions!