ASK THE MXPERTS: WHY IS HELMET TECHNOLOGY MOVING AT SUCH A SNAIL’S PACE?

March 25, 2011
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Dear MXA,
   This whole NFL fiasco, with them changing the rules because of the large number of concussions that come from helmet on helmet blows, got me to thinking about motocross helmets. Why doesn’t the helmet industry step up to the plate and build a safer helmet? Football should be easy, but motocross is more critical

The conundrum in building a safer helmet for motocross is that you have to choose how you are going to crash in order to be protected. The late Professor Harry Hurt, president of the Head Protection Research Laboratory of Southern California and Professor Emeritus, Safety Science, USC,  told the MXA wrecking crew years ago, “Tell me how you are going to  crash and I will build a helmet that will protect your head.” The  problem is, quite simply, how many concussions are you willing to trade for a death (which some riders, most notably Donnie Hansen came very close to in 1982). The Snell standards are designed to keep you alive in the most most violent of crashes. The trade-off for being alive is that you run a higher risk of a concussion in a less than life-threatening crash. It is postulated that a DOT helmet is less likely to give you a concussion, but, in the opinion of many, isn’t as good at the extremes of crash science as a Snell-approved helmet (Snell has a 10-foot drop test and DOT is a six-foot drop test). Of  course, if neither helmet exceeds the designated G’s both riders will survive (and perhaps the DOT rider will have a headache and the Snell rider will have a concussion). But, no one knows where on the sliding scale a concussion ends and death begins…a sobering thought. The new ECE and Snell 10 standards have been design to address some of these concerns.

One thing is obvious, It is very easy to design a helmet that would protect a rider in both small crashes and life threatening crashes, but it would be a very large helmet that no rider would be willing to wear.

Obviously, there may be room for technological breakthroughs, but they will come at a cost…and it doesn’t take a marketing genius to see that $99 helmets sell better than $580 Arai’s. Given that 99.9 percent of crashes aren’t life threatening, would you accept one death for every 1000 crashes as the trade-off for avoiding  concussion…we wouldn’t.

So, do we think helmets should be safer? Yes. But more lives would be saved by people buying the best helmet (currently available) than the cheapest one they can get, or by replacing their current helmet every five years, or by replacing their current helmets after any hard crash (or at the very least sending the helmet back to the manufacturer to have it checked after a crash) or understanding how a helmet works in the first place. If you wear a cheap helmet, you lose the right to pontificate on what others should wear.

It has been said that the human body was designed to absorb blows that are the equivalent of a man’s running speed. When you increase the speeds, heights and G’s, the human skeleton’s natural defenses are compromised. We try to increase the body’s sustainable force levels with padding (boots, braces, chest protections and helmets), but eventually we exceed the absorptive qualities of leather, nylon, plastic and fiberglass. Which leads us to the second part of what Harry Hurt told so many years ago? “Tell me how you are going to crash and I will build a helmet that will protect your head. You will most likely die from other injuries, but it won’t be a head injury.”

As for football?the NFL could easily develop a better helmet than their current webbing and air cell design.

If you have a question, send it to mxa@hi-torque.com

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