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Commentary: Helmet technology has a head injury solution

SAN JOSE, California (VN) — I believe there is a technological solution to the head injury debate that has taken over the cycling world these past few days. The technology already exists and is both proven and commercially available. It’s logistically feasible and would be, in most situations, quite effective.

Here is my solution: We install impact sensors on every rider’s helmet, and then find a way to link them to teams or the race medical staff. We then find a way for the race to make safety decisions based on the readings of the sensor.

Cycling faces unique logistical challenges in confronting head injuries. Unlike arena sports, officials and teams often have no idea that a rider has crashed, let alone that they’ve hit their head. Getting medical attention to riders who need it starts with knowing they need it.

A helmet sensor would remove reliance on the judgment of a potentially concussed athlete in a high-stress situation. There is no way to definitively link a certain level of force with a head injury, so pulling a rider based exclusively on sensor readings would be medically and ethically questionable. But such a sensor would at least alert medical staff of the need to check out a rider immediately.

We may be closer to this type of solution than you think. There’s already a commercial product that does this: ICEdot. The sensor is inside a yellow disc about the size of a strawberry. It links up with your cell phone to communicate directly with an emergency contact if triggered.

ICEdot has done quite a lot of research into what exactly a concussion-inducing impact looks like. The sensor contains both an accelerometer to detect for linear impacts and a gyroscope to detect angular forces. Both are required to trigger the system. In other words, a friend walking up and smacking you on the head with his hand is not going to send a text message to your emergency contact.

It is also possible to set the severity of the impact required to set off an ICEdot. A rider with previous head injuries can set it at a lower level, thus triggering the system more easily.

Once triggered, the system provides its wearer with a short countdown. If it’s not turned off in that time, a designated emergency contact gets a text message alerting them to the impact. The countdown is intended to prevent accidentally scaring the pants off your significant other.

Away from the racecourse, ICEdot simply provides peace of mind. If I end up in a ditch, at least my wife will know about it.

ICEdot would need to slightly modify its technology for racing. Riders don’t have phones in their back pockets, for example, so the sensor would need to transmit its warning by another means. Luckily, forces within cycling are already adding telecommunications to pro bikes, sending us power, heart rate, and speed data for TV broadcasts. There’s no reason this system couldn’t also send notification of a rider in distress. It could inform medical staff of a head impact they might have otherwise missed.

Regulating our way out of the head-injury problem is a poor proposition, as my colleague Fred Dreier articulated on Tuesday. The sport needs a cultural change. But culture doesn’t change quickly. Technology does. Perhaps the way forward isn’t a pile of new rules or mandatory trainings, but progress through innovation. ICEdot’s already done the hard work for us, anyway.