Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why Helmet to Helmet Contact is creating more and more problems in the National Football league.

I am not an impact analysis physicist in real life, but I'm going to do my impersonation of one here at Alex LOGIC dot com. I just watched the latest helmet to helmet contact moments earlier today in a game between the San Diego Chargers and the Cincinnati Bengals.

It suddenly dawned on me why helmet to helmet contact seems to be getting more lethal as time goes on. My revelation was further confirmed when I did a google image search for "shock absorbing helmets". It appears that the best way to protect the head inside of a helmet is by finding the furthest point from the head that is considered the impact point, strengthening that farthest point as much as possible, and then adding technologically advanced cushioning in layers inside the helmet.

The problem with this approach however is that the harder the outside of the helmet is made in conjunction with more sophisticated cushioning on the inside (therefore the more protection offered to the helmet wearing person), the more DAMAGE that helmet wearing person does to whatever it is contacting. So, when two football players helmets collide, they create a lot of deflective force even as they protect the helmet wearer.

It's a classic case of Dr. Doolittle's "Push Me, Pull You".

For the more neanderthal among us, these two women also represent push me, pull you...

"Push Me, Pull You" is not the answer when it comes to N.F.L. football helmets.

The image of the freeway guard rail completely embeded inside of the automoble above shows the problem that will occur if two different types of structures impact each other, so football helmets have to be made the same for every football player.

So what is the answer for reducing head to head helmet damage on the NFL football field?

I can't show you an exact picture of the answer, but if you look at the image below...

The concrete pylon, or barrier, has no give, causing the car (aka player) to completely give in and collapse against itself. However, in football, that concrete pylon would be connected to a second player's neck and spine that does give way, possibly causing paralysis to the player being hit, and significantly less damage to the hurtling car (tackling player).

Ideally, the helmet exterior needs to be made of three layers, the outside layer MUST collapse at a certain impact threshold and then be re-stabilized by a second internal shell layer that doesn't give, underneath that middle layer would be a third layer that once again would be compressible, but less compressible then the outer layer.

In my opinion all three shell layers are critical, the first outer shell layer "gives" to increase stopping distance and stopping time. The second, unforgiving layer is as strong as the outer shell is on current football helmets, but then it is absolutely essential to have another shell layer below that to prevent this middle shell from being driven backwards into the skull, then the cushion is in the next few layers as is presently being used.

The result is, after a head to head collision, one would actually see dents on the helmets of both players, without the internal strongest component in any way contacting the skull.

Ideally, it's the alternating of a hard but crushable exterior, protected by the actual hardest part of the helmet, reinforced by another less crushable interior, followed by several cushioning components.

Am I talking a bigger helmet that what is used now? No. I am talking three shell layers that may result in slightly less room for the final set of internal cushions, but because of the buckling that will occur on the outside that is not presently occurring, should negate slightly less room for the internal cushions. However, those cushions become a last line of defense, so somehow, slightly less cushioning has to be more effective than in the past.

Determining the composition of the three shell layers would be very complicated, and the cushions would become even more critical as a final fail safe should a contact occur that still allows for massive force to go through all three shell layers.

I think we're talking a much more expensive helmet, and a more disposable helmet as well. But the presumably additional protection to the footballplayers should be worth it.

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