Trek hit with lawsuit over WaveCel helmet safety claims

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Do you remember reading about Bontrager’s new WaveCel helmet technology, and thinking to yourself that it sounded too good to be true? It turns out you weren’t the only one, and now someone in New York is taking Trek Bicycle Corporation — Bontrager’s parent company — to task about it. 

According to legal publication Law360.com, Trek Bicycle Corporation was recently presented with a proposed class action lawsuit “alleging it misleads consumers into believing its Bontrager WaveCel helmets protect against concussions more than the average helmet and that it conducted unreliable research for marketing purposes.”

Plaintiff Andrew Glancy of Dutchess County filed the suit with the Southern District of New York, with the primary complaint taking issue with Trek’s claim that WaveCel is “up to 48 times more effective than traditional foam helmets” in preventing concussions during a crash.

Bontrager certainly made some too-good-to-be-true claims regarding its innovative WaveCel energy-absorbing helmet liner – that may very well be too good to be true. Photo: Bontrager.

According to the suit, Trek’s claims were based on misleading tests that were conducted by parties that have a direct financial interest in the technology, thus presenting “significant potential conflicts of interest”. In addition, the suit says the tests were performed on modified traditional helmets, not actual production WaveCel models, so the test results aren’t applicable to what is actually available for purchase.   

Furthermore, Glancy’s suit alleges that WaveCel’s price premium is not justified given the false claims, and he’s seeking “damages to be determined in a jury trial as well as attorney fees.”

This sounds… complicated

Bontrager’s heady claims in regards to WaveCel’s supposed improved safety performance relative to traditional helmet construction certainly raised more than a few eyebrows when it was introduced last March. It’s always sounded a little too good to be true, and if you take Virginia Tech’s test results at face value, that’s perhaps the case. 

While Bontrager’s WaveCel-equipped helmets have generally scored quite well, Virginia Tech’s rankings don’t place them appreciably higher than helmets built with traditional technology. In fact, not only does the best-performing Bontrager helmet in the rankings use a conventional expanded polystyrene foam liner, but it even outscores the newer version of that same helmet built with a WaveCel one.

If Bontrager’s WaveCel helmet technology is so much better at preventing brain injuries than conventional EPS foams, then why does the older EPS-equipped version of the Bontrager Rally mountain bike helmet test better than the newer WaveCel-equipped one? Lower numbers are better in this ranking, by the way. Photo: Virginia Tech.

Nevertheless, Trek still believes in its WaveCel technology, and is apparently prepared to demonstrate as such in court.

“Trek believes in and stands behind our Bontrager Wavecel helmets,” reads a statement from Trek that was provided to CyclingTips. “This lawsuit is without merit and we will vigorously defend against it. The plaintiff has not made an allegation of physical injury. Trek will continue to responsibly promote and improve this innovation in helmet technology.”

A war of words

It’s often been asked — including by us — why helmet brands don’t make bolder claims regarding their helmets when they clearly incorporate some sort of fancy new technology or design that’s obviously intended to improve rider safety. After all, when you consider that the primary purpose of a bicycle helmet is to protect your brain and skull, and that the bicycle industry on the whole lives and breathes on marketing claims, such a thing would seem natural. 

However — at least in the United States — companies are exceptionally careful with the sorts of claims they make when it comes to helmet safety. 

Take Giro’s flagship Aether road helmet, for example. That model was the first bike model to incorporate MIPS Spherical technology, which moves the low-friction slip plane from next to your head to a more consistent spherical (hence the name) ball-and-socket interface that sits between two discrete layers of helmet material. Intuitively, a prospective buyer would assume that this new design is safer than a more standard MIPS setup, but that’s certainly not how Giro presented it when the helmet was launched. At the time, Giro would only go on record saying that the company saw “repeatable benefits” in testing.

“Spherical Technology’s Ball-and-Socket design, powered by MIPS, helps redirect impact forces away from the brain by allowing the outer liner to rotate around the inner liner during a crash,” reads a description on the Aether’s product page. “It also eliminates contact with hard plastic or slip-planes against the skin.”

Giro won’t explicitly say that its Aether is safer than other helmets built with simpler technology, but that’s certainly the implication.

And then there’s this:

“All Giro helmets are designed to reduce as much energy as possible while meeting and exceeding stringent safety standards. The goal of Giro’s Integrated MIPS-equipped helmets is to reduce rotational forces, while enhancing fit and comfort by combining the MIPS slip plane with the helmet’s adjustable fit system. Giro believes that helmets equipped with this technology can reduce the amount of rotational force that may be transferred to [the] rider’s brain in certain impacts.”

Notice the clever word choices? Giro is very careful here not to say that any of these helmets are “safer” or provide “more protection” than something else — even if it has internal data that might actually prove that to be the case. 

Even MIPS — a company that has based its entire existence on the perception of improved safety — doesn’t make any claims that might put it in legal hot water.

“The MIPS Brain Protection System is found inside the helmet, generally between the comfort padding and the EPS (a high-quality foam used to reduce energy),” reads a statement on its web site. “For certain impacts, the MIPS BPS can reduce harmful forces transmitted to the brain.”

Note how that statement says that MIPS can reduce harmful forces, not that it will reduce them — a subtle distinction, sure, but an important one nonetheless. 

Even Virginia Tech, whose published rankings are based solely on repeatable test data, is highly measured with its verbiage. 

“Our bicycle helmet impact tests evaluate a helmet’s ability to reduce linear acceleration and rotational velocity of the head resulting from a range of impacts a cyclist might experience,” reads a statement on the organization’s web site. “Helmets with more stars provide a reduction in concussion risk for these impacts compared to helmets with less stars.”

As much as consumers would appreciate (and likely benefit from) a straightforward ranking of helmet safety and effectiveness by model, the science of helmet testing is unfortunately too variable for brands to make those blanket claims without risk of repercussion. Although you can certainly define a test protocol such that it adheres to the most stringent definition of the scientific method, there’s still plenty of debate as to what sort of tests actually replicate a real-world crash. There’s also the notion that no two crashes are exactly identical in the first place, so even if you were able to design a test that perfectly mimics a real-world crash, you’d then only be simulating in a lab one single case out of a near-infinite number of possibilities.

Not surprisingly, this sort of hedging is common practice within the bicycle helmet industry as a whole. Even if a company knows that its helmet is safer based on internal testing, it won’t explicitly say so. Giro won’t. Bell won’t. Nor will Specialized, Lazer, Kask, Kali, and on and on.

All of this of course then begs the question as to how and why Bontrager was so bold in proclaiming the superiority of its WaveCel technology, but that’s perhaps a topic for another day.

Maintaining the status quo

So what’s the takeaway from all of this? Even if the lawsuit against Trek doesn’t end up going very far, it highlights the pitfalls brands face when even attempting to make claims regarding helmet safety. Although it would certainly be a lot easier for safety-minded consumers to be able to determine objectively what helmets actually work the best based on truthful manufacturer test results and industry-standard protocols, we have little choice but to rely on the efficacy of third-party outfits like Virginia Tech to conduct independent testing on a wide range of makes and models. 

But is Virginia Tech’s testing perfect? Is that outfit really the be-all-end-all when it comes to helmet safety rankings? The answer to that question is subject to debate, but that’s all we’ve got for now, and my hunch is that the situation isn’t likely to change any time soon.

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