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From a pure safety standpoint is there a functional difference between a climbing helmet, cycling helmet, etc? Is a cycling helmet actually the safest solution for a cyclist, or would the greater coverage of a climbing helmet be better for safety?

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I think it curious that you singled out a cycling helmet since they are notoriously compromised from a design standpoint. The standards generally test for direct blunt impact from the top of the head as if cyclists primary concern was an anvil falling from the sky. Without agreement on a statistical model of expected fall vectors, safety seems a hard item to measure along one dimension (better or worse) –  bmike Feb 6 '12 at 14:53
    
Cycling and climbing are the only types I know. I didn't single it out for any reason beyond it looks smaller than a climbing helmet. So, any singling wasn't intentional, just the result of really having no knowledge about them at all. –  Stereotypical Feb 6 '12 at 14:59
    
If you poke around a bit on the main cycling site, you may find that there is great discussion and differing opinions on even the various cycling helmets and the relative safety merits of each. –  bmike Feb 6 '12 at 15:06
    
There's a main cycling site? –  Stereotypical Feb 6 '12 at 15:10
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bicycles.stackexchange.com and more specifically helmets –  bmike Feb 6 '12 at 15:15

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I would argue that there is a wide functional gap in safety helmets for various sports. The design tradeoffs are easily summarized:

  • Can this helmet be designed for a single use or does it need to work after repeated falls and knocks.
  • How many sharp objects need to be deflected?
  • How large and sharp an acceleration must the brain be protected against?
  • How much weight can be added before the helmet causes undesirable or unsafe conditions when used?
  • How important is heat dissipation? (whether you are baking on a climbing wall with no shade or riding for hours in a warm climate)
  • Will sunlight protection be necessary for the helmet or the user?

Each of these design criteria have very inherent safety tradeoffs. In general, the type of cycling helmet that has a cosmetic and purely "hold the styrofoam together" type shell would not be appropriate for climbing where you might expect to have tens of rocks fall on your head during one climb. Similarly, the padding on a cycling helmet might be more than is needed for climbing. Looking at the spectrum from a full face racing motorcycle helmet to a winter skiing helmet, to a rock climbing helmet, to a skateboarding helmet, to a mountain biking helmet and finally to a typical road cycling helmet - you can see a progression to less and less armor as well as various amounts of styrofoam like insulation depending on the speed at which your body might hit the ground or an object if you fall from your vehicle.

I don't know how to precisely answer which is best, but hopefully this discussion helps frame your decision when picking a helmet if you can't get help from a subject matter expert that has experience in the activity you will use your helmet.

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Very informative, thank you. –  Stereotypical Feb 6 '12 at 15:16

Safety equipment for each sport is designed, tested and certified specifically for that sport. Different sports have different and often competing priorities for the type of protection and comfort required.

An example of competing priorities might be that climbing helmets need to provide extra protection at the top of the head to defend against falling rock, whereas, cycling helmets are designed to provide additional ventilation for comfort.

In short, climbing helmets are not suitable for cycling and cycling helmets are not suitable for climbing. Wear the correct safety equipment for the activity you are taking part in.

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Where do you get the information that cycling helmets provide more protection for the back of the head? –  Stereotypical Feb 6 '12 at 14:47
    
@Stereotypical, not sure :-) I can't find any supporting evidence so I've updated my answer to reflect that. –  Graham Feb 6 '12 at 15:25

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