Virginia Tech uses extensive testing to rate football helmets

The idea behind the influential Virginia Tech football helmet ratings was born in 2009, said Stefan Duma.

A biomedical engineering professor, Duma said he began testing how the brain performs during different impacts with sensors in the helmets of Virginia Tech football players in 2003. The team’s equipment manager who was in charge of buying the team new helmets called Duma in 2009 to see which model he should buy.

Duma researched the topic and discovered there was no independently funded testing, only recommendations from the football helmet manufacturers themselves.

Duma sought to change that.

Using the data he had acquired from the helmet sensors, Duma spent the next two years devising a test to determine how well helmets reduce head acceleration within the helmet during an impact.

Virginia Tech tests helmets by dropping them 120 times from predetermined heights to simulate the different forces of impacts that its research says a football player would expect to experience during a season.

“The more acceleration you put into somebody’s head, the more you deform the brain and the more likely you’re going to have a brain injury,” Duma said. “So if we can bring brain acceleration down we can reduce the brain loading and we can reduce the risk.”

When Virginia Tech released its first set of rankings in 2011, it was met with criticism by the helmet manufacturers, the national group that sets the standards for helmet manufacturers and some brain experts who said the ratings oversimplify the complicated science behind concussions.

Schutt CEO Robert Erb, who lives in Manhasset, says the Virginia Tech rating system encourages helmet makers to produce five-star helmets that are bigger than older models, which theoretically make them larger targets for impacts and could also lead to more neck injuries.

“Their answer to most of this is it’s better than nothing, but I’m not quite sure it’s true,” Erb said. “Obviously the greater offset a helmet has — that’s the distance from a skull to the exterior of the shell — the more energy can be managed. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into a better protective device.”

Virginia Tech publishes its helmet ratings on its website and used to update it once a year. But Duma said manufacturers began producing new helmets at such a quick rate that now he updates the ratings whenever they test a new helmet.

Virginia Tech says funding for the rating system comes from grants from the Department of Transportation, the Lewis Family Foundation, Toyota Motor Corp. and Virginia Tech’s Institute of Critical Technology and Applied Science and its Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics Department.

“We have no financial ties to any manufacturer,” Duma said.

Duma said it also is important to buy test helmets independently, so much so that he avoids buying them at the closest sporting goods store because “every company has Blacksburg, Virginia, marked on their map … You want to make sure you don’t get a doctored helmet.” So he set up “a friends and family network around the country” that purchases new helmets for him.

Virginia Tech also has begun testing helmets in other sports. It released hockey helmet ratings in March, and Duma plans to do the same with baseball, softball, lacrosse, bicycle and youth football helmets over the next 10 years.