Saturday, September 3, 2011

Can F1 Helmet Technology help the NFL?

Yes, I watch the National Football League and I like the hometown team, the New England Patriots. I know, those bastards. If you have followed the sport of American Football you know that there has been a heightened awareness around the issue of player concussions. Players have gotten bigger, stronger., faster and as a consequence hit harder. There have been a number of rules changes, points of emphasis in regards to hitting/tackling technique and levying of fines for "illegal" hits to address the issue. What does this have to do with F1? Well, they both make a lot of money but I am talking about helmets. The NFL helmet suppliers are making efforts to make helmets more impact resistant and help reduce concussions, but can they go further? I think there is a lot that NFL can learn from the world of motorsport, the FIA and F1.

When looking at the common impacts involved with F1, football and the brain, we are usually talking about blunt force hits whether it is crashing into a tire barrier or being stopped in your tracks by a 250 lbs linebacker. Your brain is going to bounce around in your skull cavity if your equipment is not absorbing a lot of the energy. The NFL estimates that 75% of helmets used in 2010 were made by Riddell, 23% by Schutt, 1-2% by Xenith, a few by Adams USA and Rawlings returns this season. The current safety standard for helmets used in the NFL are set by the The National Organizing Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE). They are currently in the process of reviewing the standards for youth football helmets and have considered motorsport standards set forth by SNELL, non-profit organization and a leader in helmet safety both in the United States and around the world. However, having these NOCSAE standards should not stop the helmet suppliers from exceeding industry standard in they are trying to truly address the issue of concussions.

There are a number of studies and initiatives in both motorsport and the NFL around the issue of brain injury and acquiring good data. Dr. Steve Olvey, a fellow of the FIA Institute of Motor Sport Safety, Circuit of the Americas Director of Medical Services and former Director of Medical Affairs for the defunct CART World Series among other things medical, advocates that NFL helmets have accelerometers implanted in earpieces so forces to the head can be measured, collected and cataloged during violent impacts; it is already mandated for use in F1. The goal would be to eventually have enough data in various sports to establish some sort of threshold for brain injury. In looking at Riddell, as they are the official helmet of the league,  their new top of the line 360 helmet contains data acquisition system they call Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) and Concussion Reduction Technology.  This is embedded in the helmet and is a variation of the earpiece accelerometers. However, this has not been adapted by all the helmet suppliers and is not mandated. Nevertheless, even if a supplier is doing data acquisition now, what about we already know about materials and weight? What can they do in terms of advancements in helmet construction and testing given the standards that exist in motorsports and F1?

In both sports strong neck and shoulders muscles are important as they help improve performance and prevent injury, but clearly the athlete's strength needs to be supplemented. NFL helmets generally weight 6 lbs while the typical F1 helmet weights less than 3 lbs; that is additional weight that can cause injury to the neck or help accelerate the head to where a concussion occurs. NFL helmets are made of specially molded polycarbonate plastic construction and high-tech cushioning systems consisting of "energy managing" foam and inflatable bladders inside the helmet with an energy absorbing face mask. F1 helmets are made of a carbon fiber outershell, 3 layer foam inner shell, and bulletproof polycarbonate visor and in some models can withstand the force of a 55-ton tank; again weighing less than a NFL helmet. Should the NFL consider carbon fiber shells? When looking at the NOCSAE's drop testing parameters for 2012, the impact speed for the drop test will be 7.73 mph . The impact speed for F1 helmets (FIA 8860 standard) is 21.3 mph. I think the NFL could raise their threshold. You can say F1 should too, but racing drivers protection is supplemented by the use of a HANS device, cockpit surrounds and the chassis itself. In the NFL there is not much; the neck roll may supplement helmet protection but it is virtually unused at this level of football these days.

Obviously the severity of the impacts are different. Players are not travelling at 190 mph, but they are running up to 20 mph apply forces directly to the body and doing it 50 times a game. When you consider the cumulative effects of these collisions with players like Ted Johnson or Andre Waters retiring early, beset with emotional problems brought on by brain injuries, or early onset dementia or Alzheimer's disease, clearly there is room for the use of stronger, lighter materials and more rigorous standards for football helmets. The NFL is certainly moving in that direction but it should not take this long.

Interested in F1 and NFL helmets, here are some links:

FIA- Setting the Standard
Schuberth SF1 helmet fact sheet
National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment
Riddell Helmets

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