Holy Hell, This Is How American Football Helmets Are Concussion Safety-Tested

By Kyle Wagner on at

Today is the day the NFL play and London, and while some people might consider the sport to be less hardcore than others (because of all that padding). There's a very good reason for it, and it's naturally about keeping the players safe from serious injuries.

A version of this post was originally posted on 7th May 2013

In this study, published a few years back, in the Journal of Neurosurgery, a group of scientists proved, seemingly, that modern American football helmets are better than old leather ones. Thanks, guys. What is more notable, however, is that this batshit crazy device is how the data was gathered.

The tests run here, by a group of scientists associated with Virginia Tech, found that 10 modern helmets performed significantly better at reducing the force transmitted to the skull from various types of impact. The results improved concussion risk by anywhere from 45 to 96 per cent, which would be more encouraging if the old helmets weren't 80 years old.

The study was undertaken, presumably, to combat the idea that helmets are totally ancillary to preventing brain injuries in American football, and are only meant to protect the skull. Even though it's finally commonly accepted that chronic brain trauma is a a pervasive issue in football, how to address it still draws heated debates.

The by-now prevailing wisdom is that while better equipment will always be nice, the nature of brain trauma—momentum, not impact, crashing the brain into the inside of the skull—makes helmets secondary. On this side, though Virginia Tech claims that's not so, and helmets can prevent not just large concussions, but the smaller impacts that cause brain trauma over the years. These aren't blind claims—they use information gathered over several years that measures head acceleration and deceleration in actual games. VT has run previous studies rating all helmets currently in use, and provides the definitive and widely cited database of ratings. So there's some precedent for VT doing useful work here.

It's also enough vested interest, though, for the Journal or Neurosurgery to run an editorial ahead of publication, pointing out that this paper, while peer reviewed, is in direct contradiction to a previously published paper. And, well, both probably can't be right, so we should all maybe go back and check our long division.

Enough of that, though. Let's get back to the important part here. What the hell is that machine? A quick Google image search returns a few other images of the Bugs Bunny punishment machines, but writeups mainly focus on the sensors in the helmets (important), and not the spring-loaded-boxing-glove-like lab testing equipment (hugely important).

So for now, know that modern helmets are almost definitely safer than the crap we used 100 years ago. We think. But also and more comfortingly, that they are being tested by the same equipment that punches Elmer Fudd in the head when he comes around looking for trouble. [Smithsonian]