There is little debate that bike helmets save lives. Government data shows that three-quarters of all fatal bicycle crashes involve head trauma, and that helmets are up to 88 percent effective in mitigating head and brain injuries.
But while Americans are coming around to the use of helmets, experts are sounding the alarm about a frightening helmet con that could leave you and your family headed for disaster: counterfeit bike helmets.
Clint Mattacola, head of Helmet R&D for Specialized Bicycle Components, said authentic and counterfeit helmets can look almost identical on the outside. But, he said, looks can be deceiving.
What’s the big deal? Mattacola performed an impact test, required by law for all bicycle helmet certifications, which shows what happens when the helmet hits a solid surface head-on in a crash.
The authentic helmet passed. It suffers a couple cracks, but the energy of the impact was absorbed by the helmet as it’s supposed to.
As for the counterfeit?
“You can see how the counterfeit cleaves apart and has a catastrophic failure,” leaving your head basically unprotected, Mattacola said.
This is such a big issue that Andrew Love, head of brand security and investigations at Specialized, spends his days conquering counterfeiters. He says,
“Ninety-three or 94 percent of the counterfeits will come out of China and Hong Kong," he said. "You might see them on eBay and the person might say they're in Illinois, or that person might say they're in Spain.”
Love said he regularly finds counterfeits from several brands on major digital marketplaces. He said online companies and the federal government are doing what they can.
Alexx Khu, the director of the Intellectual Property Rights Center, part of Homeland Security, said the feds made 146 seizures of counterfeit sporting goods, which presented a clear safety hazard in the last fiscal year.
That includes helmets.
And in the trial of a Kentucky man arrested for peddling knock-off helmets, experts testified that consumers wearing one of the counterfeits who suffered a crash similar to that of impact testing “...might suffer a fractured skull, brain damage, or death.”
“What I find so amazing is the counterfeiters spend so much energy making a product that looks just like ours," Love said. "I mean, stunning attention to detail and paint and look but none of the safety features.”
How can you spot a counterfeit? All legit helmets contain a Consumer Product Safety Commission sticker as proof of passing federal safety standards.
Sizing charts should be American.
And price matters. A high-end bike helmet can run $100 to over $300. If you see a deal too good to be true, Love said, buyer beware.
“This is safety equipment; you don't want to bottom fish for price," Love said. "They might look good to get past the sale moment, but they won't do their job -- protect your brain. And that kind of matters."
While not all third-party online items are counterfeits, experts said the only way you can ensure an authentic helmet is to buy from a manufacturer website or an authorized bike shop.
Khu said that if consumers believe they have purchased a counterfeit, they shouldn't use it. Contact the marketplace or retailer where it was purchased immediately and then report your purchase to the Intellectual Property Rights Center at either IPRCenterOutreach@ice.dhs.gov or 1-866-DHS-2-ICE.
Several other bike helmet manufacturers were asked how they are handling the counterfeit issue, but they did not respond for this article.