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Making helmets safer: STAR rating system sets the standard

Rubbertoe (Robert Batina)

Most contact sports today require players to wear a helmet. Cyclists and skiers wear them to protect from serious injury if they fall. While helmet technology has come a long way, there is still a push to make sure that they are providing as much protection as possible.

Dr. Stefan Duma is a professor of engineering and the founding director of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest Center for Injury Biomechanics. Duma joins us to discuss his research and the STAR safety rating system given to hockey and football helmets.

What is STAR rating?

The STAR rating system is a buying guide for consumers on how safe helmets are. Five stars means it’s the safest available and zero stars means the helmet is not recommended. The rating system is based off the history of how players might get hit.

“We’re using a lot of history in terms of how players are impacted, which direction, how severe, to come up with the rating system,” said Duma.

Despite facing pushback from helmet manufacturers initially, companies are now working to get a better rating. When testing began on hockey helmets, none received a four or five STAR rating and some didn’t even make it to one STAR rating.

“When we first rated hockey for example there was no four STAR and no five STAR helmets. And in fact about 20 percent of helmets we gave the lowest rating a zero STAR, not recommended,” says Duma. “So the hockey helmets were generally much smaller with much less padding and it ended up with a lot higher head accelerations. Now you see there’s one four STAR helmet and we anticipate future four and five STAR hockey helmets.”

What these helmets are protecting against

Helmets protect your head from impact when doing certain types of physical activity. While most people think that the concern with head injuries is the speed at which you get hit, Duma says acceleration plays a larger role in head injury.

“So how much you accelerate causes, in the head for example, the skull to accelerate. That causes the brain to deform. The higher the acceleration, the more the brain deforms from its own inertia as it tries to catch up,” said Duma.

Even though technology has gotten better since helmets have been introduced, the higher STAR rating a helmet has, the better the chances you have of not getting a concussion.

“So if you look at football, historically the helmet did very little to prevent the risk of concussion. Over the past five years all the manufacturers have made dramatic improvements to the kind of helmets they are making and basically the amount of padding they have,” says Duma.  “We’ve published research that shows going to these newer helmets, these four and five STAR helmets that we’ve rated, reduces the risk of concussion by 50 percent.”

New technology

As these ratings come out helmet companies are working harder to get better ratings on their helmets. New and better technology is coming out to help reduce head acceleration.

“Basically what these better helmets do, they provide more padding across all impact levels and they reduce head accelerations,” says Duma. “The better helmets do a better job of reducing both linear and rotational acceleration and that’s really where you’ve seen the big changes especially in the past few years.”

While many believe the more expensive the helmet is the better, that actually isn’t the case, our guest says. Cost has no relation to the helmets quality. Duma encourages people shopping for helmets to look up the rating to find the best one for them.

“What we found in almost every sport from football to hockey to bicycling is that there’s almost no correlation between cost and performance,” says Duma. “Some of the cheaper helmets perform really well, some of the most expensive don’t perform as well. So we encourage people to go to our website ...  You can go pick whatever sport from there and we list the prices on there as well as the rating.”