“I thought we’d have people hugging us, saying, ‘Thank you!’ ” says Ken Yaffe, a former NHL executive who left the league in March 2012, after 19 years, and signed on with MIPS to help them get an audience with U.S. manufacturers. But after nearly a year of squiring Steenberg and Halldin around to different companies, he says, “we’ve been met with skepticism.”
One of the reasons, Yaffe suspects, is that current safety standards don’t require the companies to do anything more than what they’re already doing. It’s a criticism privately echoed by most helmet researchers: Simplistic certification standards provide convenient legal cover for the manufacturers. If NOCSAE certifies a company’s helmets as safe, then the company has less risk of being held responsible for injuries. On the other hand, if that same company goes above and beyond the standards, it could put itself at risk of getting sued: Suddenly all of its existing helmets would appear to be inadequate, and worse, the company might have to admit knowing that they fell short.
Duma, of Virginia Tech, points to NOCSAE’s industry funding to explain how such a situation has persisted in football. “Follow the money,” he says. “Imagine if Ford were the only organization testing its cars, and it was saying that every one got the top rating. It’s a very unusual arrangement.”
To Steenberg, the MIPS CEO, the situation is both harmful and backward. “If something is available that makes your helmet more safe, you should be held liable for not using it,” he says. It’s not the first time a new safety technology has faced such a paradox. All too often implementation hangs on the grim calculus of whether the cost to industry of adopting a safety measure is more or less than the cost to the public of going without it. When liability enters the equation, lawyers and judges and lawmakers get involved, and even the most urgent matters can end up mired in argument. For example, it took more than a decade to legislate seat belts as standard equipment in automobiles. It’s worth noting that the two companies that first popularized and implemented seat-belt standards were Saab and Volvo, both Swedish.
Change is on the horizon, though. The University of Ottawa’s Hoshizaki has a grant from NOCSAE to develop a new standard that incorporates rotation. “I want to be fair to the manufacturers,” he says. “If they could make a safer helmet, they would. I don’t think they are against it; they’re just making sure they don’t cross that line and say, ‘Yeah, we should be managing rotation,’ because that would bring up liability issues.” With a new standard, that roadblock could vanish.
One enterprising company has already launched a product to directly address rotational acceleration in another contact sport. In the summer of 2012, Bauer, the number-one helmet maker in ice hockey, released the Re-akt. Inside the helmet, a thin, bright-yellow layer of material sits loosely between the head and the padding, allowing the head to move a little bit in any direction during an impact.
Called Suspend-Tech, the layer appears, to the color, suspiciously similar to MIPS. In fact, during the development of the Re-akt, MIPS co-founder Halldin tested an early version on his impact rig at the Royal Institute. The stories diverge as to how that collaboration came about, and how Bauer came up with the idea for a sliding layer, but any questions that arise about intellectual property may not matter. Bauer’s Suspend-Tech is a significant debut: It is the first attempt by a mainstream company to include a rotational layer in contact-sports helmets. MIPS is betting that since one hockey manufacturer has embraced the idea, the rest of the field will start shopping for their own version. And that, in turn, could create enough momentum for MIPS to break into the football market.
In perhaps the most hopeful sign of all, the NFL acknowledges that MIPS-like products have the organization’s attention. Kevin Guskiewicz of the NFL’s safety equipment subcommittee says the league is already evaluating the concept. “We’re looking at it very seriously,” he says.
Meanwhile, as scientists do more tests and manufacturers bicker, 4.2 million people will suit up and play football this year, most of them children with still-developing brains. Every one of them needs a good helmet.
Tom Foster is based in Brooklyn, New York. This is his first story for Popular Science. It originally appeared in the magazine's January 2013 issue.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.