The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can a ‘smart helmet’ prevent bike crashes? Is it worth $200 to find out?

The Lumos Matrix helmet contains rechargeable front and rear lights to produce a beam that can be seen from about 150 to 200 meters away. (Video: Lumos Helmet)

After a couple close calls with cars, Eu-wen Ding, an avid cyclist, became concerned that maybe he wasn’t visible enough to drivers — especially since he often forgot his bike lights at home.

“I felt like I needed to find a better way to be seen,” Ding said.

So, the mechanical engineer did what engineers do: He built something to solve the problem. He decided that combining his helmet, which he always wore, with lights offered the best solution.

The result: the Lumos Matrix helmet.

Ding’s creation is billed as “the next-generation helmet.” While there are other bike helmets with lights, including one from Apple, the Lumos’s lights — which are on the front and back — Ding says, are 1,000 lumens, able to produce a beam that can be seen from about 150 to 200 meters.

The lights can signal when a cyclist is turning left or right via a remote that can be attached to the bike. The lights on the back of the helmet flash red when you are braking. They also are rechargeable. And if you have an Apple Watch, you can sync the helmet and use your watch to operate the lights.

The Matrix is pricey, at $249, and experts say you can buy a helmet that offers good protection for less than $100.

But the Matrix has its fans such as ER physician Christian Rose, who has treated injured cyclists and been one himself. It also has its share of detractors, not so much over the price, but who say you can be lit up like a Christmas tree and still get hit by an inattentive motorist.

Rose, who works at San Francisco General Hospital, said he bought his helmet after he was hit by a car around dusk two years ago, breaking his hip. He said the driver did not see him, although Rose was in a bike lane and had reflectors and a blinking light on the front and back of his bike.

“Helmet protection is key, and wearing a helmet with lights on the front and back brings the focus of the lights up to eye level with motorists, making you more visible,” Rose said. “To me, it was a very sensible way to be seen and protected. Giving yourself the best opportunity to be bright and annoying is the best way to avoid near misses.”

Arlington resident Monica Morin bikes six miles round trip to her job at American University. A year ago, she was hit by a car and bought a Lumos Matrix helmet a few days later.

“I do feel like the helmet makes drivers wake up if you put it on the flashing setting,” Morin said. “Anything that flashes on streets is going to help a driver look up.”

But Morin said that while the helmet has all this technology to help cyclists be more visible, vehicles also have more technology, and that distracts drivers.

“If the distractions inside of vehicles — touch screens, mounted phones — were eliminated, then drivers would be more aware of their surroundings,” Morin said.

Pittsburgh cyclist Paul Heckbert agrees. The retired Carnegie Mellon University professor who once rode his bike all the way to the District (he took the train home) said the focus of trying to prevent bike-car collisions should be on making sure drivers are paying attention to the road.

“Efforts like this helmet put the burden of safety onto cyclists entirely,” Heckbert said. “Often when a driver hits a bicyclist, the driver claims he did not see the cyclist, and that’s an easy excuse. I think that if the goal is saving lives, driver education is more effective than encouraging a cyclist to wear a big blinking helmet.”

Heckbert said drivers should be required to take regular road tests to make sure their vision, reflexes and driving habits are “still safe for everyone else on the road.” He also suggests requiring the use of “speed limiters” or “speed governors” on cars to prevent drivers from going over the speed limit.

“Cycling should be encouraged,” said Heckbert, who also owns a car. “Cycling is good for you, it saves money, and it’s good for the environment. Cycling should be easy, like walking. And you don’t have to wear a helmet when you’re walking.”

Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, owns a Lumos Kickstart helmet, which is the first Lumos helmet Ding designed. The Kickstart retails for about $179. Billing said his experience wearing the Kickstart has been positive, with cabdrivers and bus drivers telling him how much more visible he is to them. However, Billing said the cost of the Lumos helmets are a barrier for some.

“Helmets are the last line of defense for cyclists,” Billing said. “The first line of defense is making sure you are picking the safest routes for your bicycle commute, being able to handle your bike so you avoid road hazards like potholes, don’t weave in and out of traffic all of these things, are the first line of defense.”

Billing said WABA firmly believes that designing streets so bicyclists and motorists are clear as to where they need to be is what will keep everyone on the road safe.

He said the District, which has close to 5 percent of its population commuting by bike, is ahead of other U.S. cities when it comes to working toward making streets safe for bicyclists and motorists.

“We need streets built to handle bikes, traffic lights for cyclists and motorists, well-lit streets,” Billing said. “Helmets like Lumos are transitional technology. Our organization’s goal is for streets in the future to be built to be safe for everyone so equipment like these helmets will not be necessary.”