Words by Robbie Clark
Photography by Jesse Fox
When the Swedish government passed a law in 2005 making it mandatory for children under the age of 15 to wear bicycle helmets, many were concerned that the law would be expanded to include adults. Worries about their civil liberties and big government’s encroachment into their private lives were troublesome, but what worried them the most was the thought of becoming a nation forever cursed with flat, lifeless “helmet hair.”
These fears were well-grounded, according to Anna Haupt, cofounder of Sweden-based Hövding helmets. She says bicycling culture is ingrained in Swedish culture, with nearly 80 percent of the Scandinavian country’s population using bicycles as a mode of transportation, be it commuting to work, riding to school or pedaling into town from the countryside.
“And we saw this law as a threat to us,” Haupt said in excellent English during an interview via Skype. “If the law was also going to include adults in the future, we hated the traditional helmets because they were geeky and destroyed the hair.”
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but vanity is a close cousin, and Haupt and her colleague, Terese Alstin, decided they were going to revolutionize the helmet industry and preserve Sweden’s fondness for bicycle dependence. And spare millions of people from potential bad hair days while they were at it.
As a response to the 2005 helmet law, Haupt and Alstin, while studying industrial design at Lund University in southern Sweden, developed a master’s thesis exploring the idea of an “airbag helmet” that would only deploy in the crucial split seconds following a collision, much like the airbag in an automobile.
“We needed to employ a lot of people during those years, of course, because we couldn’t do everything ourselves,” Haupt remembered. “We needed the best mathematicians, because everything that we needed was not invented yet. We needed a new algorithm that was far from the car industry algorithms. We needed an airbag that was three-dimensional, which in most cars the airbag isn’t. And it needed to hold and withstand multiple hits in one single accident, so it needed to withstand full pressure for several seconds, which normal airbags don’t have to do.”
Seven years and thousands of crash tests later, Hövding was created and certified as a safety product in Sweden, as well as in all of Europe. The company hopes to eventually have the helmet certified in the United States.
The company, which now employs 16 people with an arsenal of varying skills and expertise–engineers, marketers, finances, customer service–in Malmö, Sweden, has also found distributors and retailers in all of northern Europe, as well as Germany and Austria (and even Asia, with the helmet hitting the streets of Japan in October).
Initially, Hövding was a hard sell, as is any radical new contraption (let alone with a price tag of nearly 400 euros), and many distributors and retailers were hesitant to face the liability of putting an unfamiliar safety device on the heads of their customers.
“It took us actually a long time to find the retailers and the distributors, because they were more afraid than the actual customers of this completely new invention,” Haupt said. “Is it really going to work? How do I know that it’s going to inflate in an accident? Are people really prepared to pay for this kind of product? It took us a lot of time to convince the retailers that this was the future of helmets.”
“Hövding always raises a lot of questions about [its ability to work]. It’s much safer than traditional helmets in many aspects, and that’s something that is much harder, I think, for us to communicate, because when it comes to safety, it needs more words than just a sentence.”
So here it goes:
The Hövding helmet is actually worn around the rider’s neck like a thick collar or scarf. A snap button on the front zipper functions as an on/off switch. There’s a nylon fabric “airbag” tucked snuggly inside the collar, which looks like a big, white, puffy hood when inflated. There are also small electronic sensors which have been programmed with algorithms to recognize the motion a rider’s body makes when the bicycle is hit from behind by a car or slams into a telephone pole or encounters one of the hundreds of other perils cyclists face while cruising down the road. When the sensors are triggered, the airbag quickly inflates and engulfs the head, while not obstructing the user’s vision, for a few seconds before beginning to slowly deflate. The sensors can distinguish the jostling associated with normal cycling and other situations from actual accidents, so if you happen to be wearing an engaged Hövding while running up a flight stairs, the mechanism won’t deploy.
Haupt says the Hövding is safer than conventional bicycle helmets because it covers a much larger area of the head, and the airbag pillows the brain for gentler shock absorption.
And since Hövding was a creature of vanity, it is only natural that the outer layer of the collar can be accessorized with about a half dozen different interchangeable styles.
From its robust media reception to an impressive amount of design and entrepreneurial awards, this innovative helmet drew immediate international attention. And many venerable outlets called moments after the product launch with interest in the new invisible helmet.
“They started phoning from Canada, Japan, the Discovery Channel,” Haupt said. “They phoned us from all over the world in just a few hours. It was great.”
However, the greatest accolade the inventors have received has been the sight of cyclists on the road near their office wearing Hövding helmets barely a year and a half after it was released to the public.
“Seeing it in reality on the streets, of course, was worth all the struggle. It was a great feeling,” she said, not only because it is her creation, but because she feels like she’s helping to preserve her local cycling culture while making her fellow countrymen safer.
And Haupt really does feel like the riders are safer, especially after she put her own Hövding helmet to the test.
“I’ve tried it, yes,” she said. “It wasn’t meant to be tried, but I was in a bicycle accident, and it worked. Of course.”
And afterward, her hair still looked immaculate.