13News Now Investigation: Football helmet safety

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by David Alan, 13News Now

WVEC.com

Posted on April 28, 2014 at 7:04 PM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 30 at 5:49 PM

NORFOLK -- Football may be America's favorite sport, but it is also one of the most violent.   Spectators love the crushing hits, but for student-athletes the risk of a concussion or serious brain injury on the football field is significant. 

Statistics show football has the highest concussion rate and a helmet is the best way to protect players against a concussion or traumatic brain injury.

Researchers at Virginia Tech have been studying the biomechanics of injury for several years. Their study began by testing military combat equipment and developed into a closer look at injuries far removed from the battlefield- the football field.  They say some football helmets better absorb impact, reducing the risk of a concussion or serious brain injury by up to 50 percent.

Virginia Tech researcher Dr. Stefan Duma designed a series of helmet impact tests for adult helmets used by high schools, colleges and the NFL.

“So we took ten years, millions of data points and brought it into the lab and recreated test energy levels to simulate what players see on the field," Duma said.

The most popular brands and helmet models were tested 120 times at different heights and from different directions. The 'drop testing' measured the amount of impact absorbed by the helmet.  

Through their research, Virginia Tech developed a five-star rating system for helmets.  Their scale begins with a "Not Recommended" helmet and goes up to five stars or "Best Available" rating.

LEARN MORE: Virginia Tech helmet ratings

Duma says there's a dramatic difference between how various brands and models of helmets cushion the blow. 

"There was no way for consumers to get any information on what helmet was better. It was purely what it looks like, what it costs, what the sales rep tells me,” Duma explained.

To see how helmets used by local high schools measure up against Virginia Tech's five-star rating system, 13News Now requested helmet information from the seven largest school districts in Hampton Roads. We asked for the make and model of the helmets used by students-athletes.

We found a number of districts use top-of-the-line four and five-star helmets. We also found a significant number of schools use the lower-rated helmets.

Our investigation found one-star helmets being used in Suffolk, Hampton and Virginia Beach. We found two-star helmets being used in Norfolk, Chesapeake, Hampton, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and Suffolk.

In all, our investigation uncovered 20 high schools in Hampton Roads using helmets not recommended by Virginia Tech researchers. 

Duma says a more expensive helmet does not correlate to a safer helmet. He says some of the more expensive helmets do not test well and often, the cheaper models are the safest. Duma adds the price tag to outfit a high school team with top-rated helmets would cost just $5,000 to $10,0000.  

"If you can't afford to have better equipment, then you probably can't afford to play that sport,” Duma said.    

Some helmet safety studies give passing grades to all major brands and are critical of Virginia Tech’s findings. But since 2010, when Virginia Tech released its five-star rating system, colleges and the NFL have gotten rid of their low-rated helmets. In fact, Tech's five-star rating system is posted in every NFL locker room today.

Tomorrow night on 13News Now at 6, we found a number of schools in Hampton Roads using the same low-rated football helmet that left one teen with a serious brain injury.  Also, we’ll show you how to use our online ‘helmet tracker database’ to uncover what helmet your child is wearing and how it stacks up on Virginia Tech’s five-star rating system.   

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