In a Charlottesville lab, football helmets are placed on the heads of crash test dummies, these dummies receive blows similar to those players take on the football field, and then researchers measure how the helmet reduces impact on the mannequin’s head. This is repeated thousands of times and researchers are drawing conclusions about which helmet models best protect the heads of football players.
Peter King visited this lab for the last episode of his podcast, and he also visited the headquarters of Vicis, the company that produced the best performing headset in lab tests three years in a row. The result sounds an optimistic note about the possibilities of better helmets making football a safer sport.
No helmet can prevent all concussions, but Dr. Ann Bailey Good of the Biocore lab in Charlottesville said tests in her lab were significantly more advanced than tests on helmets in previous years. While earlier tests focused primarily on the types of impacts that cause skull fractures, modern tests are more comprehensive.
“We are looking beyond the fractured skull. We’re looking at things like concussions, and now we know from more recent research that rotational kinematics, or the way the head rotates, can influence whether a concussion occurs or no. So the tests that are being done now are done with a flexible neck and a test fixture that allows us to observe not only linear motion but also rotational motion of the head due to an impact, ”Good said. “We will be testing the front, the side, the face shield, the back, to see how different helmets will dampen the energy going into the head.”
In lab test results published by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, Vicis helmets showed the greatest ability to reduce impacts to the head. Vicis CEO Dave Marver told King the company has studied how the auto industry has made cars safer by using materials that would crumple to absorb some of the impact of an accident. impact without being permanently damaged, and a more rigid plastic inner core to protect the player’s head.
“When it comes to car safety, you have cars that crash,” he said. “So why not put these same things in a helmet?” But it has to be done in a practical way – you cannot take a helmet out of service after a collision. So we borrowed these engineering principles.
We are a long way from solving the problem of the perfect football helmet. For starters, it will take decades to determine whether putting better helmets on players today reduces the number of neurological problems retired NFL players have as they age. And cost is another issue: Better helmets tend to be more expensive helmets, and King’s podcast reported that the Seattle Seahawks, for example, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on helmets – which is good for an NFL team but unrealistic for a school team. But on an issue important to the future of football, progress is being made.