Trek hit with lawsuit over WaveCel helmet safety claims

Remember when you read about Bontrager’s new WaveCel helmet technology and thought it sounded too good to be true? It turns out you weren’t the only one, and now someone in New York is bringing up the Trek Bicycle Company – Bontrager’s parent company.

According to the legal publication Law360.com, Trek Bicycle Corporation recently received a class action lawsuit alleging it misled consumers into believing that their Bontrager WaveCel helmets were more shock resistant than the average helmet and unreliable research for marketing purposes would have performed.

Plaintiff Andrew Glancy, of Dutchess County, filed the lawsuit in the South District of New York, the main complaint challenging Trek’s claim that WaveCel is “up to 48 times more effective than traditional foam helmets” at preventing vibration during an accident .

Bontrager certainly put up some too good to be true when it comes to its innovative WaveCel energy-absorbing helmet liner – that could very well be to be true. Photo: Bontrager.

According to the lawsuit, Trek’s allegations were based on misleading tests conducted by parties with a direct financial interest in the technology and thus constituted “significant potential conflicts of interest.” Additionally, the suit stated that the tests were on modified conventional helmets were performed, not on actual WaveCel production models, so the test results do not apply to what is actually available for purchase.

In addition, Glancy’s lawsuit alleges that WaveCel’s award premium is unfounded in the face of false claims and seeks “damages to be determined in legal proceedings and attorney’s fees.”

That sounds … complicated

Bontrager’s heady claims regarding WaveCel’s supposedly improved safety performance compared to traditional helmet construction certainly raised more than a few eyebrows when it was launched last March. It always sounded a little too good to be true, and if you take Virginia Tech test results at face value, it might be.

While Bontrager’s WaveCel-equipped helmets generally do reasonably well, they ranked no higher than those built with traditional technology in Virginia Tech’s rankings. In fact, the top performing Bontrager helmet on the rankings not only uses a traditional expanded polystyrene foam insert, but actually outperforms the newer version of the same helmet built with a WaveCel helmet.

If Bontrager’s WaveCel helmet technology is so much better at preventing brain injury than traditional EPS foams, why does the older EPS version of the Bontrager rally mountain bike helmet test better than the newer WaveCel version? Incidentally, lower numbers are better in this ranking. Photo: Virginia Tech.

Even so, Trek still believes in its WaveCel technology and is apparently ready to demonstrate as such in court.

“Trek believes in our Bontrager Wavecel helmets and stands behind them,” said a statement from Trek made available to CyclingTips. “This lawsuit is unfounded and we will vigorously oppose it. The plaintiff has not made any allegations of bodily harm. Trek will continue to responsibly promote and improve this innovation in helmet technology. “

A war of words

It has often been asked – including by us – why helmet brands do not make bold claims about their helmets when they clearly include a fancy new technology or design that is obviously intended to improve rider safety. When you consider that the main purpose of a bicycle helmet is to protect your brain and skull, and that the bicycle industry as a whole lives and breathes marketing claims, this seems natural.

However, in the United States at least, companies are extremely wary of the claims they make regarding helmet safety.

Take Giro’s flagship aether road helmet, for example. This model was the first bike model to feature MIPS Spherical technology, which moves the low-friction glide plane from next to your head to a more consistent spherical (hence the name) ball-socket interface that sits between two discrete layers of helmet material. Intuitively, a potential buyer would assume this new design is safer than a standard MIPS setup, but that’s certainly not how Giro presented it when the helmet was launched. At the time, Giro only announced that the company had seen “repeatable benefits” when tested.

“Spherical Technology’s MIPS-powered ball-and-socket design helps divert impact forces away from the brain by allowing the outer liner to rotate around the inner liner during an accident,” says the Ether product page. “It also prevents contact with hard plastic or sliding surfaces on the skin.”

Giro is not specifically going to say that its ether is safer than other helmets built with simpler technology, but that’s certainly the implication.

And then there is this:

“All Giro helmets are designed to reduce as much energy as possible and at the same time meet and exceed strict safety standards. The goal of Giro’s Integrated MIPS equipped helmets is to reduce rotational forces while improving fit and comfort by combining the MIPS glide plane with the helmet’s adjustable fit system. Giro believes that helmets equipped with this technology can reduce the rotational force that can be transmitted to [the] the driver’s brain during certain effects. “

Do you notice the wise choice of words? Giro is careful not to say that this helmet is “safer” or “more protective” than anything else – even if it contains internal data that could actually prove that it is.

Even MIPS – a company that has based its entire existence on the perception of improved security – makes no claims that could get it into legal hot water.

“The MIPS brain protection system is located inside the helmet, generally between the comfort padding and the EPS (a high-quality foam that is used to save energy),” it says on its website. “With certain effects, the MIPS BPS can reduce the harmful forces transmitted to the brain.”

Notice how this statement says that MIPS can reduce harmful forces, not that it reduces them – a subtle distinction, sure, but an important one nonetheless.

Even Virginia Tech, whose published rankings are based entirely on repeatable test data, scores highly for its pronunciation.

“Our bicycle helmet impact tests evaluate a helmet’s ability to reduce the linear acceleration and rotational speed of the head that result from a series of impacts a cyclist may experience,” the company’s website says. “Helmets with more stars reduce the risk of concussion from these impacts compared to helmets with fewer stars.”

Unfortunately, as much as consumers value (and would likely benefit from) a simple ranking of helmet safety and effectiveness by model, the science of helmet testing is too variable for brands to make these blanket claims without the risk of repercussions. While you can define a test protocol to conform to the strictest definition of the scientific method, there is still a lot of debate about what type of tests will actually simulate a crash in the real world. There is also the notion that no two crashes are exactly the same in the first place. Even if you could design a test that perfectly mimicked a crash in the real world, you would only simulate a single case in a lab in an almost infinite number of possibilities.

Unsurprisingly, this type of coverage is common across the bicycle helmet industry. Even if a company knows from internal testing that their helmet is safer, it is not specifically stated. Giro won’t. Bell won’t. Also Specialized, Lazer, Kask, Kali and so on and so forth.

All of this, of course, begs the question of how and why Bontrager so boldly proclaimed the superiority of its WaveCel technology, but that may be a topic for another day.

Maintaining the status quo

What’s the point? While the lawsuit against Trek doesn’t go very far, it highlights the pitfalls brands face when trying to make helmet safety claims. While it would certainly be much easier for safety-conscious consumers to use truthful manufacturer test results and industry protocols to objectively determine which helmets actually work best, we have no choice but to rely on third-party effectiveness. Party outfits like Virginia Tech run independent tests on a wide variety of brands and models.

But are Virginia Tech’s tests perfect? Is this outfit really essential when it comes to helmet safety? The answer to that question is controversial, but that’s all we have now and my guess is that the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

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