Expert Commentary

Football helmet testing and safety standards

2010 study in Journal of Biomechanical Engineering based on Dartmouth College data on limits of football helmet testing methods.

Football-related concussions and their long-term health effects are a topic of controversy and a focus of sports journalism. Players at all levels, from high school to professional, frequently suffer mild brain injuries, despite helmet innovations and rules instituted to discourage certain kinds of helmet-to-helmet contact.

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Biomechanical Engineering, “An Investigation of the NOCSAE Linear Impactor Test Method Based on In Vivo Measures of Head Impact Acceleration in American Football,” compared current and new proposed helmet-testing methods in the laboratory to data from real-world play. That on-field data was drawn from the Dartmouth College football team, which wore in-helmet sensors throughout the 2005-2006 season. The new proposed standards extend testing to the area of the helmet’s facemask — which is not the case with current testing, where a mask-less helmet is used. Neither form of testing applies to the entire head area of a player.

The study’s main purpose was to establish technical refinements for helmet testing. But other findings may be relevant to the ongoing debate over football safety. Those include:

  • During the Dartmouth season, the 40 players endured 20,733 helmet impacts.
  • 54.7% of all on-field impacts were recorded to areas of the helmet that are not testable according to current laboratory helmet-safety standards.
  • 37.7% of all on-field impacts occurred to locations on the helmet that would not be testable according to even the proposed new helmet-safety testing standards.
  • The demonstrated closing speeds (or impact velocities) of helmet contact on the field at the professional level has been recorded at as high as 11.7 meters per second, and speeds of 7.6 m/s are easily attainable by mature players, even wearing full equipment. Current drop-testing simulates impacts at only 5.4 m/s.

The study finds that the neck region on laboratory testing equipment needs to be modified and the impact velocities may need to be changed for the new proposed testing standards. Overall, the study suggests that the science of helmet testing is still evolving as it attempts to mirror the experience of players on the field.

Tags: athletics, entertainment, safety, sports, youth

About The Author