Tries on Some New Hats
BY MITCHEL BENSON
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
SACRAMENTO -- Tragedy has always been the mother of invention at the
Snell Memorial Foundation.
From its founding nearly 40 years ago as a memorial to amateur auto
racer Pete Snell, a series of horrific motor-vehicle and sporting accidents
has spurred the foundation to devise design specifications for helmets that
can protect against catastrophic head injuries. "We don't make helmets. We
make them safer," is the nonprofit group's credo.
Now, five decades into writing and rewriting those specs for safer
motorcycle, race-car and bicycle helmets, the collapse of the
bicycle-helmet market has forced the foundation to trim its operations
while it looks for new business elsewhere. And once again, tragedy is
pointing the way, leading Snell's helmet designers into such areas as
horseback riding, skateboarding and in-line skating.
"It's made my life interesting," says Edward Becker, Snell's executive
director. "But the board figures they'll expand and contract operations
here to keep up with the markets."
Unlike other standards-writing organizations, Snell not only drafts
specifications for products but also gets manufacturers to cough up tens of
thousands of dollars to subject their products to safety testing. The
foundation prides itself on its independence by refusing to accept any
donations from manufacturers to enhance its roughly $1.5 million annual
Snell's laboratory, hidden here in a gray low-rise building northeast of
downtown, is a torture chamber of sorts. Technicians spend their days
trying to burn, smash, puncture, crack, crumple, melt, soak and freeze
shelves full of helmets submitted by manufacturers. If a helmet passes
muster, it wins the coveted Snell seal of approval.
Mr. Becker says the foundation has flunked 48% of all the bike helmets
it has tested in the past six years, 41% of motorcycle helmets and a
somewhat smaller percentage of race-car helmets.
Snell officials estimate -- and manufacturers agree -- that the
certification program adds about 50 cents to the wholesale cost of every
helmet, which can carry a price tag of $25 to $130. That includes testing
several samples; adding stickers to every helmet whose samples pass; and
performing follow-up tests of helmets purchased from bike shops and
But in the past couple of years, the bicycle and bicycling-accessories
market has collapsed -- with bicycle sales alone off more than 20% since
1994. Suddenly, in the summer of 1994, "it seemed like ... everyone who
wanted one had a bicycle helmet," Mr. Becker says. "The whole industry
slammed into a wall."
Almost immediately, some of North America's biggest bicycle-helmet
manufacturers -- including market leader Bell Sports Inc. and a subsidiary,
Denrich of Canada -- dropped Snell's certification program. Instead, they
sought to develop their own certification program, or join
standards-writing panels, as a way to cut costs and have a bigger role in
the development of safety standards. (Industry analysts say those two
companies alone control 50% to 55% of the helmet market.)
The consequences for Snell: The number of bicycle helmets it tests will
fall to about 1,100 this year from a peak of around 5,000 in 1993. Largely
as a result, Snell's paid staff has dropped to 11 from 21 in 1994.
But while Snell has been stung by the tumult in the bicycle market, its
testing of motorcycle and race-car helmets has remained fairly steady.
Meanwhile, Snell says it is branching out into other areas:
When a teenager in Ireland was killed last year in a horseback-riding
accident -- his head crushed when the horse threw him and then toppled onto
him -- Prime Minister John Bruton encouraged the boy's parents to contact
Snell's lab in England. Today, the lab director is working on standards for
an equestrian helmet. The standards are expected to be published next
When emergency-room doctors in Malaysia saw too many of their nation's
ubiquitous moped riders suffering severe head injuries, they called on
Snell to write a standard for a low-speed motor-vehicle helmet that riders
would wear in warmweather climates. Those standards are expected within a
When the federal government in 1992 released statistics for the first
time on serious in-line-skating injuries -- 29,000 that year alone, 5% of
them head injuries -- Snell researchers realized that even Snell-certified
bicycle helmets weren't providing enough coverage to the back of the head
for that particular sport. So they went to work, and by 1994 -- when those
injuries had rocketed to 76,000 -- Snell published the first helmet
standards for activities such as in-line skating, skateboarding and
mountain biking. This market is so new, however, Snell tests just a
"minuscule" number of these helmets, says Mr. Becker.
Snell says the changing market hasn't affected its primary mission:
studying head injuries and designing specs for safer helmets. "These
cutbacks did not affect the core of the foundation," says Gib Brown,
Snell's director of test development. "I would like no hint that we're in
trouble, because basically we're not."
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