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Publish date: Dec 3, 2010

Senator wants more stringent helmet safety review

By Marta Lawrence
NCAA.org

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall has requested that the Consumer Product Safety Commission take up football helmet safety. In his letter to Commission chair Inez Tenenbaum, the Democrat asks the group to consider the adequacy of current voluntary helmet safety standards, citing concussions and head injuries as the motivating factor for the investigation.

“Although football is a contact sport that will always involve some risk, safety equipment can help reduce injuries,” wrote Udall.

Estimates suggest that 1.6-3.8 million concussions occur from participation in sports- and recreation-related activities every year. Although football accounts for the highest rate of reported concussions during games (3.1 per 1,000 athlete exposures), other sports, including helmeted and non-helmeted sports, also pose a risk for injury, according to data from the NCAA Injury Surveillance Program.

Rules to reduce these injuries by protecting players from receiving intentional or flagrant blows to the head are enforced in college football. The NCAA has also adopted a policy requiring institutions to have a concussion management plan on file as a condition of membership.  

The plans must address student-athletes who exhibit signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion. The rule requires the affected student-athlete to be removed from practice or competition and be evaluated by a healthcare provider with experience in concussion management. Student-athletes are not permitted to return to activity for the remainder of the day and not until they are cleared by a physician such as a team doctor.

Additionally, all student-athletes must be educated about the symptoms of concussions and sign a statement accepting responsibility for reporting concussion-related injuries and illnesses to the medical staff. Some studies suggest that the concussion rate is artificially low due to underreported incidents of injury.

In the letter to the CPSC, Udall notes that helmet safety has improved tremendously since voluntary standards – recommended by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment in 1973 – were adopted by helmet manufactures. “Yet this voluntary industry standard does not specifically address preventing concussions caused by less severe blows or from rotational acceleration,” he argues.

Children and younger athletes are at particular risk, says Udall, because the standards do not differentiate between helmets used by adults and those used by youth. “This ‘one size fits all’ approach may not be appropriate for child athletes who are not as big and strong as professional players,” he writes.

Helmets used at the collegiate level must comply with NOCSAE standards, have a face mask and a secured four- or six-point chin strap. The NCAA also provides a guideline for helmet fitting and removal and recommends that institutions examine helmets daily for fit and weekly for damage. 

In 2006, NOCSAE published a new standard testing method designed to more closely emulate on-field impacts believed to be responsible for mild traumatic brain injuries.

Udall is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the work of the CPSC. The CPSC has jurisdiction over more than 15,000 consumer products, including sporting equipment.

Note: The original version of this story has been corrected.