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No Increased Risk-taking with Hockey Helmets

Summary: This email from John Sabelli, then Chairman of ASTM's hockey equipment subcommittee, followed a New York Times article on bicycle helmets that talked about riders taking increased risks if they wore helmets, known as risk compensation.

Bicycle helmets are being attacked with the same faulty reasoning that we have been fighting in ice hockey for decades: the myth that the protective headgear gives a false sense of security resulting in more aggressive play. (Why didn't gloves and shin guards do this?) Since its introduction in the mid 1970's, the hockey helmet and full face protector has been blamed for everything from high sticks to player aggression to head spearing and spinal injuries. Review of facts and injury data have repeatedly exposed this falsehood, yet we are still fighting it, and it persists at the coaching level. The facts showed that eye-blinding injuries ceased where full face protectors were worn. The facts showed that spinal injuries decreased significantly after rule changes prohibiting spearing and checking from behind were enforced.

Pushers of the false security myth even twisted statistics to imply that injuries to other parts of the body tncreased. In fact only the percentage of those injuries among total injuries increased, because the percentage of head and face injuries declined.

Discussions over the past few years have centered on whether societal attitudes have changed. It is felt (but hasn't been proven) that there is a general increase in aggressiveness and loss of respect for opposing players. Many youth sports are dealing with increasing aggression by parents against officials and opposing teams and coaches. The supposition is that these attitudes pervade society and affect playing styles. One can also point to the rise in popularity of "extreme" sports and sports media such as professional wrestling, which feature intentionally violent and aggressive behavior. One can argue whether these cause aggressive behavior or are simply a reflection of changed attitudes. Either way, aggression and risk taking seem to have gained acceptability in large segments if society. Rather than blaming protective gear for the increase in injuries, it seems we should be thankful that we don't have even more.

If you take this false security argument to its limit, all safety equipment should be removed from cars, and every car should be equipped with a gun barrel in the steering column, so that anyone who gets in an accident is killed instantly. I'm sure accident rates would go down. This would also reduce traffic congestion, energy shortages and global warming!

The New York Times deserves credit for one thing, anyway. Their picture and caption showing two bicyclists did point out that one was helmetless, while the other was wearing the helmet improperly, with the forehead exposed. NYT also included a diagram showing proper and improper helmet positioning. We can only hope that most readers will not take the time to read the article and will just look at the pictures and captions. This may at least do some good.

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This page was revised on: October 26, 2020. BHSI logo