By: 14 March 2016
Helmet-mounted cameras: a dangerous luxury?

Motorcyclists who wear helmet-mounted cameras could be at higher risk of crashing and serious injury, according to worried experts. Sophie Flint explains

Sales of helmet-mounted cameras have rocketed in Britain.

But while GoPro-style cameras are perfectly legal to use, some authorities are now questioning whether that’s a good thing for those on two wheels, arguing that they can disrupt aerodynamics, while also encouraging reckless riding.

A number of industry figures have urged bikers to shun helmet cams simply because they could subconsciously encourage a motorcyclist to ride more dangerously as they search for a good shot to upload to YouTube.

Paul Breen, head of catastrophic and serious injury at law firm Cassell Moore, is a motorcycle injury specialist. He’s spent the last 30 years analysing biker crashes while picking up the pieces in the aftermath.

He recently voiced concerns about so-called action cameras, saying that he was expecting to see an increase in accidents directly caused by the devices, which retail from anywhere between £200 and £400. Breen argues that some types of video cameras, particularly those mounted on the side of a helmet, can interfere with a rider’s stability, and ultimately, a potentially deadly loss of concentration.

“I’d urge the Government to take a closer look at the law regarding helmet cams,” he says.

“There are many makes and models on the market. Some are bullet shaped and sit on the very top of the helmet, making very little difference to the aerodynamics of a helmet. But others are much more obtrusive – large, rectangular in shape and jutting out to one side.

“Ask any rider and they’ll tell you how the shape of a helmet can make an enormous difference as to how aerodynamic they are. So it doesn’t take a genius to see that a prominent camera, plus mounting, could create extra drag.”

Breen is worried that this pull could lead to buffeting. While it may not be noticeable on short rides, it could cause neck fatigue on longer journeys.

“A tired rider is a distracted one, and a distracted one is an accident waiting to happen,” he warns.

Shared concern

Breen’s fears are shared elsewhere.

Police in New South Wales, Australia, recently launched a clampdown on certain types of helmet cameras. They have begun issuing fixed penalty tickets for those found to be flouting the rules.

Meanwhile here in the UK, Tim Shallcross, head of technical policy at the road safety charity Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), is equally anxious. He’s not only concerned with the cameras’ aerodynamic properties, but also worried about their psychological impact too.

“The risk with these cameras is in thinking, ‘Oh, I need to get the perfect shot’ instead of riding sensibly and concentrating on the road,” he says.

“Admittedly, they can become useful when filming accidents. But at the same time we’re increasingly seeing footage on YouTube of extremely discourteous driving by helmet-cam wearers. Many of those buying a camera won’t think of the aerodynamics of it. But it’s a threat to stability.

It’s also a question of speed, as Shallcross explains: “The camera on a bicycle causes no problems. When you move to a motorbike that is riding at 70 mph, or more, that’s when you get a problem.”

“I’d urge bikers to try the cameras out on safer roads at a number of different speeds to check for any stability issues.

“And secondly, more importantly, don’t put yourself in the position of taking any silly risks simply to upload a good shot to YouTube. There are quite a few instances on the internet which capture a rider’s final moments.

“The most dangerous form of driving on the roads is on a motorbike – don’t add to the risk with a helmet cam.”

The law in Britain states that a camera can be attached to a helmet using a bracket but cannot be secured by drilling holes in the shell, as that compromises the integrity of the head gear.

Peter Atcliffe, a senior lecturer in Aerodynamics at The University of Salford, says side-mounted helmet cameras could potentially skew airflow. He says that there is no doubt that the addition of a camera to a helmet will change the airflow around it.

“A camera attached to the side of a helmet is more likely to affect a rider than one mounted on top of it because the flow around it will be asymmetric and the balance of its weight will obviously be skewed to the side on which is it attached,” says Atcliffe.

“In some instances, it could be something that causes a persistent ache in the neck and subsequent tiredness.”

Interfering with safety

Professor Peter Bearman is a professor of experimental aerodynamics at Imperial College London.

He too is calling for more research to be done, particularly on how a helmet camcorder could become a lethal projectile in the event of a serious collision.

He says that there is the potential for a helmet cam to have a harrowing effect at high speed: “At 70 mph the aerodynamic drag force on the camera could be between one and two kilograms, depending on the shape of the frontal area.

“The other distraction is a vibration due to a loose or flexible mounting, in which case some kind of aerodynamic buffeting will occur. A camera could become a dangerous projectile if it became detached at high speed.

Cary Murphy, a spokesman for motorcycle helmet company Reevu, has been helping to raise awareness in his native Australia, too.

He believes that some particular brands of cameras are a hazard on race tracks and roads.

“These cameras are not aerodynamic, which could result in riders being fatigued by uneven weight distribution; exposed to sudden wind gusts, especially large vehicles passing in the opposite direction; and unable to judge the correct space if any urgent head movement is required, such as ducking or diving.

“These may sound insignificant, and a little trivial, however the offset weight and uneven airflow can greatly increase fatigue, lead to distractions and also cause an imbalance in perception. Just one of these issues can have deadly consequences.”

Murphy is also nervous that an action cam could end up piercing through a motorcycle helmet should it be the first point of contact in a crash – as was the case with Formula 1 legend Michael Schumacher, who was wearing an action camcorder when he suffered devastating head injuries in a skiing accident in December 2013.

He added: “Any item of solid material attached to a helmet can become a penetrating object. It may inhibit a helmet’s ability to absorb, move or even function correctly in the event of an impact.”

Not everyone agrees that helmet cameras pose a danger, however.

Graeme Hill, a spokesman for the British Motorcyclists Federation, urges more bikers to use helmet camcorders as evidence-capturing devices.

He points to statistics from the federation showing that nine out of ten motorcycle crashes are caused by other motorists.

“By obtaining the footage of these crashes, law firms are actually assisted by the helmet cameras, not impeded,” he says.

“This means that despite Cassell Moore’s claims, they should be open minded when sending out a warning to motorcyclists on the dangers of helmet cameras.”