Preventing concussions has become a top priority for elite players and anyone with a child sporting a football jersey, and new technology and research is racing to try to make the game safer for all.
Virginia Tech University, which has tracked more than 300,000 impacts on its football team, is the epicenter for research into safer helmets. Their method uses a simple but critical test: lifting a football helmet rimmed with sensors six feet into the air, then dropping it onto a rubber-coated concrete and steel block.
The test mimics what players can face on the field, researchers told ABC News. Then a one- to five-star safety rating is assigned for each helmet tested. Helmets with more stars provide a reduction in concussion risk compared to helmets with fewer stars.
"If you don’t make a five-star helmet, a lot of times you can’t even bid on the sale of helmets. If a school puts out a call for proposals, it’ll say we are only taking bids for 5-star Virginia Tech rated helmets,” Stefan Duma, the director of the School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences at Virginia Tech told ABC News. “I think if you are a manufacturer, you can’t be in the business unless you are making 5-star helmets.”
ABC News got an exclusive look inside the Virginia Tech lab, where engineers are doing something not unlike crash testing for automobiles.
“When you go buy a car it’s very clear this is a 4-star car, it’s a 5-star car. A lot of work goes into that. We basically wanted to develop a system analogous for helmets,” Duma said. “So when you go buy a helmet you can look at our website and see an independent way to see which perform better than others.”
Researchers took ABC News into the lab as they tested three new helmets on the market, each boasting new technologies -- two from manufacturer SG and one from Riddell. The SG helmets are lighter, weighing half as much as other helmets.
“The interesting thing about this helmet,” Duma said in reference to the Simpson or SG helmet, “is that the shell is carbon fiber or Kevlar, so it’s super light and they use a different padding on the inside.”
And one from Riddell -- the Speed Flex helmet, just released this fall.
“For the first time you've got a company making a non-ridged shell so you see this part right here, it actually deforms, that’s very unusual,” Duma said.
“You can push on that and see how easy it bends in,” Duma explained, noting that the flexibility is expected to be an additional safety feature. “That’s their claim.”
After two straight days of testing, all three helmets tested received a 5-star rating. The helmets they are testing are for kids 14 years and older.
Virginia Tech found Riddell's new flex design reduced head acceleration better than any helmet they've tested. Click here for a full list of their tested helmets and ratings.
What the 5-Star Rating Means
The 5-star rating for both SG helmets came with two significant points: cracking was found in the helmet padding, or liner, in both helmets tested.
SG told ABC News: "The helmets are safe to use through the season" even with some cracking of the liner. “Annual reconditioning of helmets includes replacing liners," a cost SG estimates around $16 per foam liner.
Virginia Tech also noted that SG indicates their helmets have a two-year lifespan -- much shorter than the 10-year lifespan most other helmet companies claim. The company offers the possibility of re-certifying the helmet after two years.
Regarding the two-year lifespan, SG said "the helmets are new technology ... and they haven't been available long enough to know if they will last beyond two years."
Virginia Tech researchers said they hope the work done inside the lab to rate and improve helmets will make football a safer sport.
“We want parents to learn that getting out of the old helmets, getting into the new better helmets, that’s gonna reduce [your kid’s] risk,” Duma said.