Helmets go head to head in study

By Nader Ihmoud

If it’s new, it must be better.

But, playing organized football with 21st-century headgear may offer no more protection against concussion than old fashioned leatherheads.

A study published on Nov. 4 in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine, titled “Impact Test Comparison of 20th and 21st Century American Football Helmets,” found that the risk of head injury while wearing vintage leather helmets has not been improved upon by several widely used 21st-century varsity helmets.

Mike Oliver, executive director of the National Operation Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, believes the study

is flawed.

“I think it is inaccurate,” Oliver said. “We are in the process of putting together a critique that we are going to send into the Journal of Neurosurgery because [the study] is tremendously misleading.”

This method used in the study differs from the standard test done by the NOCSAE.

The new study, which was conducted by Adam Bartsch, director of Spine Research Laboratory; Edward Benzel, chairman of the Cleveland Clinic Spine Institute; neurosurgeon Vincent Miele and Vikas Prakash, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Case Western Reserve University, compared the 20th-century and 21st-century helmets in test simulating helmet-to helmet contact.

The authors conducted front, oblique front, lateral, oblique rear and rear head impact tests at 5 meters per second, using helmeted head forms, including head impact forces doses on par with approximately the 95th percentile of helmet-to-helmet hits. The helmeted head forms were attached to a crash-test dummy neck that was bolted to a forced torque transducer. The impacting helmet was the same as the helmet receiving the impact.

“[The researchers] struck a helmet with a helmet, which is not something we do, nor does any helmet standard in the world do,”Oliver said.

NOCSAE controls the standard. The standard test consists of a head form being placed into a helmet and dropped onto a hard surface from 60 inches above, according to Oliver.

In order for a helmet to become certified for sale, it has to earn a “severity index”, which measures the a score of 1200, according to NOCSAE’s Standard Performance Specification for Newly Manufactured Football Helmets. The score measures the severity and type of head injury.

“In order for a company to certify all of its helmets to our standard, they are going to have to average [approximately] 500–600 [severity index],” Oliver said.

The lower the severity index the safer the helmet is.

NOCSAE was formed to commission research directed toward injury reduction, following 32 fatalities in 1968 that resulted from organized football competition.

Although severe head and neck injuries were reduced in the ’70s and ’80s by NOCSAE’s efforts, according to the study, NOCSAE’s severity index threshold is no longer a state-of-the-art injury predictor. Bartsch acknowledged that this information is not new but that he and his colleagues “just reiterated it” in the study.

“There’s no mention of concussion in NOCSAE’s testing,” Bartsch said. “It really has to do with catastrophic skull fracture and brain injury.”

Oliver said NOCSAE had always required helmets to pass its low level impact standards, as well as its high-level standard test.

“We have a 24-inch drop and a 36-inch drop as part of the standard with a different pass fail criteria [than the 60-inch drop],” Oliver said.

Since the football helmet standard was announced in 1970, changes have been made in shell size, the type and amount of padding. Helmet interiors became stiffer and roomier as unsafe models were phased out. The number of different models dropped to 25 in 1992 from 85 in 1992.

Bartsch said he and his team feel very strongly that improvements can be made to the standard.

“Until science comes up with a new or different threshold for head injuries, there isn’t a lot of room to make dramatic improvement in the standard as it exists,” Oliver said.

A bill was proposed by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell, called the Children’s Sports Athletic Equipment Safety Act, on March 16. would give helmet companies nine months to voluntarily improve standards. If the standards still fail proper safety tests, the Consumer Product Safety Commission would be required to set mandatory guidelines.

“I’ve spoken with a number of top researchers in the country who were just dumbfounded that he would do it in the way he did it, and that he would reach the conclusions that he reached, because that is just not the case,” Oliver said.