Home » Blog » Brooke De Lench » NOCSAE and Helmet Sensors: An Ounce Of Prevention

There is still confusion about the recent position, or should I say positions, taken by NOCSAE over the past month, first deciding that the certification of any helmet with a third-party add-on would be viewed as automatically void, then, this past week, making a 180-degree U-turn and leaving it up to the helmet manufacturers to decide whether affixing impact sensors to the inside or outside of a helmet voided the certification.  Unless you read my article on NOCSAE's original decision and Lindsay Barton's this past week on its clarification, and perhaps even if you did, you are probably scratching your head and wondering what the heck is going on!

Well, I am scratching my head, too.

To put this into perspective, there are currently five impact sensors designed to attach to the inside or outside of a football helmet.  Each weighs less than 2 ounces, each with cutting-edge technology, and each designed as another tool in the concussion toolbox for sideline personnel monitoring our kids for possible concussion.

Which has me and others wondering why NOCSAE isn't asking the helmet manufacturers to explain to them and the rest of us how a 2-ounce piece of plastic stuck to a 4+ pound football helmet has them so worried? I'm not a biomechanical engineer, but I don't understand how it could possibly affect the integrity of their helmets. When I asked Albert King, an actual biomechanical engineer from Wayne State with lots of experience testing helmets, he agreed, saying he viewed NOCSAE's original ruling as arising more out of liability concerns than concerns about helmet integrety.  While admittedly, King hadn't done any actual helmet testing, he, like I, found it difficult to believe that a 2 ounce sensor could so degrade a football helmet's ability to protect a player against skull fracture (which, after all, is what the NOCSAE certification ensures) that it would void the warranty.  And Schutt tested helmets equipped with Shockbox sensors in its lab last summer before players were permitted to wear the helmets, guess what they found? No, pardon the pun, impact on helmet performance whatsoever that would even remotely suggest that the NOCSAE certification was void.  

So what the heck is going on here? Whether the NOCSAE rulings were intended to put the brakes on the market for helmet sensors to give the helmet manufacturers time to catch up, it is hard to see how it won't have exactly that effect.  Riddell, of course, doesn't need to play catch up. Not surprisingly, it has leveraged 10 years' worth of experience with helmets equipped with HITS sensors into bringing on to the market a relatively affordable helmet equipped with what it calls its InSite Response System.

While no other helmet manufacturer was willing to tell me, either on or off the record, that had their own impact sensor-equipped helmets in the product development pipeline similar to Riddell's, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess that they are, or at least should be, viewing impact sensor technology as an important new safety measure with the potential to significantly improve the odds that a concussion will be identified on the sports sideline, one that, like Riddell, they should all be embracing.  

Parents routinely apply small plastic lights to the front and back of their child's bike helmets that flash during the day and night. They weigh about 2 to 3 ounces. If a helmet company told them it voided their warranty, do you think they would listen? I don't think so. I think parents are smart enough to know that an add-on that helps keep their child from having an accident in the first place is worth the risk - which, I submit, is virtually non-existent, that the addition of the lights will cause the helmet to crack in two in the event of an accident. Heck, I have a 1.7 ounce mirror on my bike helmet, and a light in the front and back, which add a total of 6.2 ounces to its weight.  I bet there are many parents who do the same, and the add-ons keep their kids safer.

One of our readers asked, "Do the helmet makers know that sensors are used in other industries to make products safer? The auto industry has been using sensors in crash test dummies for decades; today's crash test dummies have almost 200 sensors"!

Not only that, but what about the thousands of football players, from Pop Warner to college, who have been wearing helmets for the last decade equipped with the HITS system? If the extra weight of those sensor arrays put those players at unreasonable risk of having their helmets crack (which, again, is ALL that the NOCSAE standard certifies), wouldn't we have known about it by now? Is there any evidence to suggest that a single one of those players' helmets cracked in half, much less that they sustained a concussion as a result of the added weight?

The question boils down to this: Isn't our kids' safety worth it? Would you buy a car today if all it did was meet safety standards in effect in 1973? If the technology (no matter what the helmet companies may say, is pretty much the same as it was 40 years ago (a hard polycarbonate shell that does a remarkably good job of preventing skull fractures, with some padding that attenuates some of the forces that cause concussion (linear acceleration) but does nothing to prevent the rotational forces that, experts believe, are far more dangerous)? Clearly, we wouldn't.  But NOCSAE is suggesting that we not take advantage of new technology designed to help keep our kids safe, or that, if we do, we do so at our own risk (there's that pesky question of liability again!). 

Do I know with absolute certainty that sensors installed in or on helmets not only won't increase risk? No. Do I know with absolute certainty that helmet sensors will improve the rate at which concussions are identified on the sports sideline? No, but I am willing to bet they do, even in advance of the peer-reviewed studies that scientists say are needed to prove just that.

Parents and school boards will need to make the ultimate decision on whether to apply a 2 ounce piece of plastic to helmets to alert the sideline to hits that no one on the sideline saw and to possible concussions that, sad to say, go undetected because kids simply don't report experiencing symptoms.  I'm betting that those heavy helmets can handle a tiny piece of plastic, and that sensor-equipped helmets will make the game safer than helmets without sensors.

And, most important, after following a high school football team for the filming of the new PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team,"  I know from personal experience in working with the great kids in Newcastle, OK that, given a choice, they will choose to equip their helmets with sensors. I can only imagine what they will say when I tell them the helmet companies do not think a 2 ounce piece of plastic will maintain the integrity of the shell.