Helmet maker Kali Protectives takes unwavering stance on safety

A cutaway from half of a Loka shows off the Composite Fusion Plus technology and the Cone-head pyramids. Photo: Logan VonBokel | VeloNews.com

PALOS VERDES, Calif. (VN) — “Would you rather get hit in the head with a pillow or a hammer?”

Kali Protectives’ Bryan Mason asked that rather daft question last week to prove a highly salient point: though most would quickly pick the pillow, Mason believes that many accidentally pick the hammer during a helmet purchase.

It’s not totally our fault; the marketing machines of helmet manufacturers don’t use protection bywords like “low-density foam,” “low-speed impact,” or for that matter, “safety.” And the reason they don’t is simple: talking about saving our brains when we crash isn’t sexy; we don’t want to hear about, and it doesn’t sell helmets. We want low weights, cooling, and good looks.

But buying a helmet on these attributes is like picking a restaurant because you like the cutlery. Everyone loves a nice fork, but it shouldn’t be the deciding factor.

Kali Protectives owner and principle founder Brad Waldron is in the business of selling helmets, but he’s an engineer by trade and a father at heart. A father of children who play impact sports, cycling included, Waldron, formerly of Specialized Bicycles, is trying to design helmets that do what they’re intended to do — protect our brains from going splat inside of our skulls when we take a digger. It’s obvious when chatting with Waldron about his work that he wants to build a better and safer helmet.

It’s not an easy task, as most of the market is concerned with aerodynamics, ventilation, and weight. For 2014, the brand is bringing two new road helmets to market, as well as a budget-minded DOT-certified full-face model, the $150 Sastra.

The Phenom and Loka

Kali’s latest helmets are the Phenom and Loka, priced at $160 and $100, respectively. They join the top-of-the-line Maraka in Kali’s road line up. The pair of helmets will be available in the coming weeks and share several attributes, including Kali’s Composite Fusion Plus technology.

The Phenom and Loka use another technology unique to Kali, called Bumper Fit. A very low density — very soft — foam is used in parts of the helmet that are important for a snug and comfortable fit. Where the Loka falls short of the Phenom is its lack of what Kali refers to as “Super Vents.” Kali uses reinforced vents on the Phenom as well as on its flagship Maraka that use a thicker material than the rest of the polycarbonate shell. The Super Vents are designed to spread load across their surface so that safety is not compromised by the removal of foam necessary for venting.

The Composite Fusion Plus technology incorporates EPS foam that is fused to the outer shell of the helmet. This reduces the total force transferred to the head during an impact. With glued or taped shells, the head can suffer an additional impact of the foam moving against the shell. The Cone-head technology was invented by Australian physicist Don Morgan. Companies like Scott, Cannondale, and POC are also using the Cone-head technology on select helmets. Scott is even using the Cone-Head technology in its flagship road helmet, the Vanish.

Fused EPS foam is becoming more common among modern helmets, but few are also using high-density Cone-head technology, which features pyramids that sit closest to the shell and collapse upon impact, spreading the impact into a greater area of the low-density foam, which sits closest to the skull.

This is where Kali also differs, as Kali only uses foams that are 80 grams per cubic liter or lower. Other road helmets are using foams that are 120 grams per cubic liter — in other words, significantly more dense. Children’s helmets, often considered the safest helmets on the market, use foams that are 25g per cubic liter.

Balancing tradeoffs

There is a trend, led by brands like Kali, toward helmets that make safety a priority over sexier attributes. The question is simple on its face: do you need the lightest, coolest, prettiest helmet on the market, or the safest one?

The answer, of course, comes down to what you value.

I’ve suffered several concussions, many attributed to years of ice hockey and failing to wear a mouth guard regularly. Yet, most recently I crashed in a short-track event and suffered a concussion. I was not going very fast, but the impact of my head bouncing off of a root was enough to rattle my brain. My helmet showed no damage.

The crash left me wondering. If I’d been wearing a different helmet, maybe one with more low-density foam, albeit likely not as well ventilated or as light, would I have been OK? I have no idea. Unfortunately there’s no good way to accurately test helmet safety, though this is something that Waldron thinks about frequently. He’s trying to remedy this shortcoming through testing that surpasses the CPSC standard, which most helmet aficionados will tell you does not do much to test anything beyond whether the helmet is intact after a high-speed fall.

Helmet design, at least for now, is largely a reflection of values — safety versus performance. No helmet currently available excels in all areas. But companies like Kali are working toward that goal, trying to build high-performance lids that will also dramatically improve head safety. At the very least, the debate is one worth having, and increasing options are never a bad thing.

Logan VonBokel spoke with Kali Protectives at Winter Press Camp in Palo Verdes. Winter Press Camp provided travel and lodging for the media event.