American Football Helmet Polymer (Vijay Gupta & UCLA Research Team)
UCLA Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Vijay Gupta, along with students Brian Ramirez and Utkarsh Misra at the Institute for the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Divya Gupta of Harvard-Westlake, are in the process of testing their design of a lightweight, two-millimeter-thick polymer insert for sports helmets. The insert is made from a special polymer developed at UCLA, a variation of polyurethane (a polymer originally developed in the late 1950s to protect table surfaces) and EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) foam. When applied to the inner liner of a football helmet, the foam made using this polymer has been shown to decrease, by around 20 percent, the force from the type of impact an American football player traditionally sustains to his head, thereby reducing the probability of a concussion. In federal court documents provided to the United States District Court in a settlement dispute with retired players, the National Football League (NFL) has stated that nearly one in three of its retired players is expected to develop long-term cognitive problems related to head traumas sustained over their careers; such health issues are also likely to emerge at an earlier age than in the general population. With its lightweight and concealed application, Gupta’s polymer provides an additional degree of protection without affecting the current style of play.
Much of modern life hits us in the head–developments in politics, economics, warfare, and disease often possess all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the skull. Now imagine you are a football player: someone who’s supposed to get hit in the head. Imagine you’re supposed to sustain as many as seven hundred trauma-force head impacts in a football career, as one April 2014 Journal of Neurosurgery study on helmet design suggests is typical. “Stun” puts the situation too mildly.
Can design address such issues? Vijay Gupta, an engineering professor at UCLA, has shown that wafer-thin polymers inserted into football headgear can reduce the force of helmet-to-helmet impact–technically, by dissipating some of the force that results in shear deformation. A joint research project by Virginia Tech and Wake Forest universities has shown that the protective qualities of football helmets differ significantly, according to their design features. Researchers at the two colleges are now studying military helmets to see if the same obtains. We’ve always known it matters what you put into your head. It matters what you put on your head, too!
For gridiron football, the issue of reducing concussions is both an ethical and a legal one. Though all attention goes to the glamorous stars of the NFL, by numbers most football is played at youth and high-school levels, where the participants are, legally, children. University of Illinois researchers estimate that high-school football players sustain from 43,200 to 67,200 traumatic head injuries annually.
In a society increasingly based on education, having large numbers of boys harming each other’s heads simply cannot be good. Canadian researchers argue that this makes sports concussions a public-health issue, with legislation justified.
Gridiron football–and other concussion-prone sports like ice hockey, soccer, and diving–must reduce head-trauma risk, else they be legislated or litigated out of existence. Since most people don’t engage in these pursuits, do head-protection design and engineering offer any larger benefit to society?
Head injuries from falls off bicycles are about as common as sports head injuries; motorcycle riding is far more dangerous than driving a car, mostly owing to head risk. Bicycle and motorcycle use should be encouraged, as the former is good for health and the latter reduces fossil-fuel consumption. Making bicycles and motorcycles safer for riders would lead to significant public-policy gains.
The Western democracies send their militaries into battle with distressing frequency: whether or not that should be so, soldiers, sailors, and aircrew should wear the best possible headgear. Now think of images of the paramilitary police tactic units sent into the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Regardless of whether law enforcement should have paramilitary wings–journalist and author Radley Balko’s important book Rise of the Warrior Cop argues such units are almost never needed–the design aspect of huge, heavy RoboCop-style helmets visually communicates impersonal alienation, when what’s required is equipment that visually says, “Everyone please calm down.” Some research–by Gupta, by Stefan Duma of Virginia Tech, and by others–suggests that lighter helmets may provide better protection than heavy ones. If law enforcement wore light headgear into riot-control situations the optics would be much improved, which would be good for public safety.
Would all this lead to a light, comfortable fashion helmet we’d wear whenever going out in public? That seems improbable, but so are many fashion trends with which we have become familiar–and even adopted en masse.