Helmets Everywhere

Protective headgear isn't just for cycling anymore, with pole vaulters, soccer players and other athletes now wearing the safety equipment

July 28, 2006|By HUGO MARTIN | HUGO MARTIN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

College track star Kevin Dare shook the track and field world four years ago when he attempted to pole vault 15 feet, 7 inches during a Big 10 track meet in Minnesota.

The vault was no record attempt. It was not even Dare's personal best. The jump was sadly unforgettable because Dare missed and was killed when he landed head first in the steel takeoff box that vaulters use to catapult themselves into the air.

After years of debate on ways to make the sport safer, a standards panel approved in May the first specifications for a pole vaulting helmet, spurring production of several models.

In the past few years, that same panel, the American Society for Testing and Materials, has approved headgear standards for martial arts, short-track speed skating, horseback riding, bull riding and soccer - 13 helmets since 2000.

This is in addition to headgear already on the market for bicycling, motorcycle riding, in-line skating, skiing, baseball and football. Call it the "helmetization" of America. And blame it on an increasingly safety-conscious world in which nearly every sport or recreational activity that poses a head-injury threat - even a minor one - is sized up for a helmet.

Head injury experts worry that some new helmets have come on the market without empirical data to show the need for or the effectiveness of the headgear.

"There is limited data for some of these kinds of sports," said Dr. Frederick P. Rivara, a pediatrics professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine who has studied helmet use among youngsters. "Before we push these kinds of helmets we need to have an idea on the effectiveness."

Dr. Tony Strickland, director of the Sports Concussion Institute at the Centinela Freeman Regional Medical Center in Marina del Rey, shares the same concerns, adding that poorly designed helmets could interfere with an athlete's hearing and vision.

"Some might argue that some protection is better than none," he says. "That's not always the case."

America's helmet movement began 20 years ago when states and local governments started adopting bicycle helmet laws targeting teenage riders. It was prompted by a national campaign led by parents and doctors and fueled by a New England Journal of Medicine study that said 85 percent of bicycle head injuries could be prevented by wearing a helmet.

Although bicycle helmet use has varied by state, surveys show the helmets are effective when worn. In California, severe head injuries among youths 17 and younger has dropped 18 percent since the state in 1994 began requiring them to wear helmets, according to a 2005 study by the University of Washington and Northwestern University.

The same might not be said of other helmets. In recent years, the development of new headgear has been pushed less by the number of injuries and more by emotion-filled campaigns led by advocacy groups, in most cases, headed by the parents of injured youngsters. Pole vaulting, for example, has new helmet standards - but did not experience a preceding sharp spike in head injuries.

"It starts with an individual with a story," said Susan H. Connors, president of the Brain Injury Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents more than 5 million brain injury victims, families and professionals. "It's not ideal, but that is the normal course of events."

The American Society for Testing and Materials - one of four panels that approves helmet standards in the country - has been reviewing dozens of requests for new helmet standards in the past few years.

Because athletic associations and government agencies usually don't require helmets until a standard is set for thickness, shape, material and design, a campaign to require helmets for a sport often starts by persuading a testing agency to set a standard. Thus, the four panels are the target of heavy lobbying by helmet manufacturers and the parents of injured athletes.

The agencies' willingness to consider new gear might also reflect the public's growing acceptance of helmets. In 2002, Americans bought 2.4 million helmets for all sports. By 2004, that number had jumped to 4.7 million, according to Board-Trac, a sports market research firm.

Randy Swart, vice chairman of ASTM's headgear subcommittee, said his group typically wouldn't consider adopting a helmet standard until a group of athletes, schools or parents made a push for such a standard. A jump in reported head injuries alone won't prompt action from his group, he said.

As an example, he pointed out that basketball has one of the highest rates of head injuries of any sport but that his subcommittee has not considered standards for a basketball helmet because no one has lobbied for it.

"If the people in the sport are not interested, then there is no point to make headgear," he said.

So new helmets are typically created through a movement by the people in a particular sport - some of whom have not just an emotional interest, but a financial one as well.

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