The Virginia Tech–Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences has recently released the results of its annual ratings of adult football helmets, which includes helmets worn by NCAA players, NFL players and some varsity high school teams.
After over 2,000 tests and 1.8 million measured impacts, the 2012 Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings expanded to include 15 helmets in its overall evaluation in comparison to the inaugural 2011 study, which only included 10 helmets and about 1,200 tests.
Since the initial May 2011 evaluation, five new helmet models have been released by Rawlings, Riddell and Xenith and were included in the 2012 evaluation.
The study was initially designed to determine which helmets offer the most protection from the cranial impacts that the average collegiate football player might experience in a season.
Helmet safety is assessed through a series of 20 drop tests where a large metallic drop plate is raised and lowered at different speeds to represent the different impact energies seen on a football field. An accelerometer fitted to the test helmets record the head acceleration, which is measured through these scenarios and then related to the following injury that would occur.
The Rawlings Quantum Plus and Riddell 360 were both given a rating of five stars, the highest rating possible. Previously, only one helmet, the Riddell Revolution Speed, had that rating.
A team of researchers comprised of Stefan Duma, the head of SBES, Steven Rowson Jr, a research assistant professor and Joel Stitzel Jr, the director of the Wake Forest Center for Injury Biomechanics, officially released the results on May 1.
In addition to the three five-star helmets, the 2012 Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings concluded that seven helmets were worthy of four stars, two helmets deserved three stars, and three other, separate helmets each earned ratings of two stars, one star, and not recommended, respectively.
Rowson is optimistic that these findings will help teams and manufacturers make better decisions in the design and purchasing process.
"The three lowest rated helmets from last year are now all off the market,” he said. “It is encouraging to see this positive shift towards better head protection."
Helmets are rated according to a Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk system, wherein a helmet is exposed to a series of experiments testing the durability and protectiveness that helmet has to offer. Rowson developed the STAR system as a part of his Ph.D. dissertation.
"Four of the five new helmet models introduced in the last year earned a four or five-star rating. This helps demonstrate that a data-driven approach can be utilized to optimize helmet design to reduce concussion risk," he said.
“The STAR value represents a generalized concussion incidence…the number of concussions that one player may experience through the duration of playing one complete season with a specific helmet,” according to the official methodology published in the study. “The lower the STAR value, the better the helmet at reducing the risk of concussion, and subsequently the higher ‘number of stars’ in the rating system.”
The Virginia Tech football program incorporates the combined use of the four-star Riddell Revolution and the five-star Riddell Revolution Speed. Before the initial 2011 helmet ratings, Tech was using the one-star Riddell VSR4. This same helmet was found to be used by over 40 percent of NFL players, according to Rowson.
Plans for future research include the evaluation of youth football helmets, as well as protective gear in other sports, such as catchers’ masks and chest plates in baseball.
“This past year, for the first time, (we) started collecting from a local youth football team,” Rowson said. “Youth players hit heads at different severities and locations; before rating youth helmets, you have to understand how they impact their heads. A couple hundred players are going to be instrumented this fall, and that information will help develop a youth-specific rating system.”