By Sean Lahman, Democrat and Chronicle, November 15, 2012
A disturbingly close call with a motorcycle and its driver prompts inventor David Werner to find a solution for improved visibility.
For David Werner, a moment of inspiration came from what was nearly a tragedy.
Approaching a traffic light on Monroe Avenue one evening, he slowed to stop behind a minivan. He didn’t see that there was a motorcycle between the two vehicles until the last minute, and narrowly avoided a collision.
“The motorcyclist wore a black jacket and a black helmet,” Werner recalls. “If it wasn’t for a brief moment when he passed in front of the van’s brake light, I would have never seen him.”
He wasn’t sure if the motorcycle’s brake light was broken or had just been obscured, but Werner realized there had to be a better solution.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 4,250 motorcyclists are killed in accidents in the U.S. each year, and more than 150,000 are treated in emergency departments for a non-fatal motorcycle-related injury. And according to several major studies, two-thirds of motorcycle-car crashes occur when the driver of the car fails to see the motorcycle.
Werner, a Pittsford inventor, envisioned a brake light attached to the user’s helmet. It seemed like an obvious solution, but he quickly learned the challenges that had prevented others from producing a helmet-mounted brake light.
A device attached to the helmet could compromise the helmet’s safety features. You need to find a way for the signal to get from the motorcycle to the light. And since it needs to be battery operated, you need to find a way to ensure that a cyclist isn’t riding around and thinking his light is working when the battery is actually dead.
Werner teamed with engineer David Zima, an expert in H-field backscatter generators, to solve all of those problems and come up with a solution that they hope many motorcyclists will soon be using.Their patent, No. 7,218,214, covers 23 technologies that yielded a wireless brake light and turn signal that is embedded into a helmet. They’ve been in discussion with a major manufacturer about licensing the technology.
There’s no switch involved. The device in the helmet detects when it is close to the rider’s motorcycle, giving off a chirp to let the rider know it’s on. It draws very little power when not in use. All of the energy goes to power the LED lights built into the helmet. The device also gives off a chirp to let the rider know when the battery needs to be replaced.
According to Werner, it’s that last piece of technology that most intrigued helmet manufacturers. Because the signal technology includes an accelerometer, it can detect when a helmet has fallen to the ground, potentially compromising the safety features. Riders can be alerted that the helmet needs to inspect for damage which might not be visible.
Of course, this last feature has potential far beyond the world of motorcycles. The ability to detect a helmet impact could have profound implications in the sports world. As we’ve learned more about the science of brain injury, we’ve understood that athletes can suffer serious injury from blows that don’t appear to be that serious.
Werner has filed a patent application that focuses on this application of his technology. He says it will be able to measure the force of a collision as it happens on the field and transmit that information to a medic on the sideline. This could be a tremendous tool in the rapidly expanding field of head injury diagnosis.