For decades, the testing standard for football helmets has been aimed at preventing injuries such as fractured skulls and bleeding on the brain. Concussion prevention was not in the scientific equation.
That's about to change with a new standard on the way based on testing that also will measure forces linked to concussions.
The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) announced Friday in Boston that its board of directors had approved a revised standard.
It won't take effect immediately. NOCSAE made no claim it's a step in developing a concussion-proof helmet. But in this era of raised concussion awareness, it's the first time the testing standard has addressed concussions.
"It's a pretty dramatic step for us. … I don't think any other helmet in the world has incorporated these kinds of testing components," Mike Oliver, executive director of NOCSAE, said in a phone interview.
What could this mean for players, coaches and parents concerned about concussions and long-term effects?
"I think what I could honestly say it by the time the standard becomes final that a helmet that meets that standard will provide the maximum level of protection consistent with technology and science that can be provided for concussions," said Oliver.
"Whether that's a huge a huge percentage reduction or whether that's a moderate percentage reduction, I don't know. But I think I can comfortably say that helmet is doing the best that it can.''
The new standard is a work in progress.
NOCSAE, a non-profit based in Kansas City, does not itself certify helmets. It sets the testing standard. The manufacturers (under a licensing agreement with NOCSAE) certify their helmet based on whether they meet the standard.
For manufacturers, the new standard will take effect at the earliest in June of 2016.
Between now and June of 2015, NOCSAE said the new standard will be "open for comment" from manufacturers and scientists. It said scientific work will continue to establish a precise testing "threshold" on whether a helmet meets the new standard in reducing forces linked to concussions. After that, the board will again vote on whether to put the standard into practice in 2016.
"The science behind concussion forces is still in its infancy," Dr. Robert Cantu, NOCSAE vice president and co-founder of Boston's Sports Legacy Institute, said in a press release.
"There are so many different factors that can lead to a concussion we don't foresee ever having a concussion-proof helmet. This is a critical first step in improving the ability of equipment to reduce concussion risk. NOCSAE will continue to support research and evolve its standard as new data becomes available."
NOCSAE acknowledged that to date there is no scientific data showing that any test can measure a helmet's ability to minimize concussion risk.
NOCSAE has been setting testing standards for football helmets and other helmets since the early 1970s. It uses "drop tests" – mechanical tests in which helmets are dropped from certain heights – to measure how well helmets reduce linear forces.
The new standard is aimed as measuring rotational forces, delivered from an angle, that simulate the kinds of blows that also occur in football collisions. Rotational forces have been linked by researchers to concussions.
As part of the new testing, NOCSAE will use an air driven ram to strike the helmet.
"(With drop testing) you are limited in how you can impact the helmet and what kinds of forces you can generate," said NOCSAE'S Oliver.
"We've added a testing component that uses an air-driven ram, and it impacts a helmet on a head form (dummy head) where it's free to move in whatever direction it moves when it's hit. That's the first time that's been incorporated in any time that I'm aware of.
"It lets us hit the helmet in what's called an off-centric manner. So it will hit kind of an angle blow … which generates rotational accelerations, and those are the things we're really looking at and the things we're most focused on."
In explaining why it has made the change now instead of in previous years, NOCSAE said developments in the medical understanding of the role of rotational forces and improvements in mechanical means of replicating and measuring rotational forces made introduction of the new standard doable.
"The revised standard approved today introduces methods for testing certain concussion-causing forces," Cantu said.
"Our next step will be to establish a threshold that helmets must meet to reduce concussion risk. NOCSAE will continue to challenge the scientific, medical and manufacturing communities to explore solutions for enhanced athlete safety."
The setting of the threshold for testing rotational forces will be a key.
"The last part of the puzzle — which maybe is going to be the most difficult part, but we're going to be optimistic about it — is every standard has pass-fail criteria. It has to be at or below some level of performance," said Oliver.
"With concussions, there really isn't yet a scientifically agreed upon consensus as to what they threshold is. We know what the ballpark is. …. We're going to wait for the scientists to tell us whether we're right or not before we actually make it a final standard.''
Oliver said in coming months it will be looking at existing helmets and how they might meet the new standards.
"We may learn that none of them meet them … or we may learn that half of them meet it really well and the other half don't even come close," he said.
What is NOCSAE sets a standard no helmet can meet?
"If you have a standard that nobody can meet, then you don't have any helmets that meet the standard and what's the point?'' Oliver said.
"I think what we will see over the next year, year and a half is I think we'll see some unique combinations of padding and protective equipment. We'll probably see some unique shell design changes, maybe some different shapes of the helmet. … I think we'll see some innovation."