The NFL has been in the news quite a bit recently over a number of lawsuits brought by retired players claiming the NFL didn’t do enough to protect them from head injuries while playing. Some of the cases even extend to the helmet manufacturers, with one of the issues being whether players were given the safest, most effective helmets available. Football helmets have definitely come a long way since the days of strapping on what today would be considered a flimsy leather or plastic cap.
And moving outside just the context of football, we see the same sort of advances in helmet design and effectiveness for other activities as well. Take motorcycling. It wasn’t all that long ago that motorcycle helmets were made of padded leather and weren’t actually all that effective at protecting bikers from serious head injury. Today’s motorcycle helmets, by comparison, are technologically impressive—an extremely effective. NHTSA has estimated that helmets are 37% effective in preventing fatal injuries to riders and 41% effective for passengers. In 2008 alone, helmet use saved the lives of 1,829 motorcyclists.
So what is it about motorcycle helmets that make them so effective? What sort of advances are we talking about?
First, according to the Snell Foundation, helmets work like a brake or a shock absorber. Brain injuries happen because in an accident the brain absorbs a large amount of energy. If the helmet can reduce that amount of energy, then a brain injury is less likely. There are two ways a helmet does this: (1) with a hard, outer shell that “disperses” the energy. In other words, it takes all the energy of the impact and spreads it over a larger surface area so your brain doesn’t have to absorb it all; and (2) with foam lining that will crush and break during a crash, absorbing energy so your brain doesn’t have to.
The big advances in helmet technology have meant that both of those parts—the hard lining and the foam inserts—are better at doing their jobs. Motorcycle helmets today aren’t leather or cheap plastic. They are made of complex materials like polycarbonate, a fiber-reinforced material that is stronger than steel by weight, Kevlar or fiberglass. Significant research and testing has gone into striking the right balance between the strength of this shell and its ability to compress when necessary.
Meanwhile, the inside impact-absorbing liner, is generally made of polystyrene or Styrofoam, effectively cushioning and absorbing shock during a crash. Here again, technology has been developed to provide just enough padding to help the head come to a smooth stop instead of suddenly being jolted against a hard surface. Now, aside from getting the padding “just right” there’s even a helmet out there now that claims to provide a sort of immediate medical attention—by using technology that kicks into cool the brain and prevent brain swelling in the seconds right after crash.
Other advances such as improved chin straps, more precise helmet sizing, and increased range of visibility also mean that today’s helmets are more effective—and constantly improving—for individual riders. And building comfortable helmets is not to be ignored. Providing appropriate ventilation, built-in communication devices, making them lightweight and padded on the inside all means that riders are more likely to put the helmet on in the first place. And that, after all, is the most important part: no matter how advanced a helmet is it doesn’t do much good if it’s sitting in the garage at home when a crash happens.
Regardless of whether you’re an occasional or avid motorcycle rider, make sure that you get a helmet that works for you and that you put it to use.