Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Protect That Brain! Things to Know About Yer Helmet!

Hey Everyone!

Those of you that know me, B-Train or Bethany, and our awesome crew at Wicked Skatewear, know that at Wicked, we sell derby stuff that includes, among all the other hilarious, helmets!  Yeah, we love to look good, and help you look awesome on the track, and your helmet’s probably not the sexiest thing you wear.  It is one of the most important pieces of gear that you put on, and since we’re all players ourselves, we got to thinking about what’s actually protecting our domes.

As an ice hockey player, when I started playing roller derby, I knew that wearing a helmet was important.  What I didn’t know is where to start when figuring out what helmet to wear.  Hockey helmet?  Skateboard helmet?  Bicycling helmet?  I just wanted to get out on the track, so I grabbed the first helmet I saw - my boyfriend’s skateboarding helmet - and headed out there.  Since I’ve spent the past six years playing, matured a little (just a little!) and now run a store that outfits oodles of derby teams across the country, I care about what protects my teammates and yes, even our opponents.

Back in August, here’s what we set out to do: we wanted to find out what kinds of helmets on the market are best for roller derby.  Most roller derby is played on a flat track and we also take banked into consideration!  Sure, our leagues have rules that require us to wear helmets and what helmets are better than others when it comes to roller derby?

Here’s the fun that we got into and what we found out!

To start, we looked at the helmets that we regularly wear, and noticed that most had stickers indicating that they were certified to some standard, whether it’s the CPSC standard or HECC standard (more on those later), and some had no certification at all.  So we looked at what it means for a helmet to be certified, what tests they have to go through and how relevant those tests are to what we do, since there are currently no government or industry standards regarding the testing and certification of helmets for use in roller derby.

Yes, government rules and regulations are sooopa boring and please bear with me.  Turns out that they’re actually helpful in figuring out what’s safest for your head!

CPSC  - the CPSC (short for Consumer Product Safety Commission, www.cpsc.gov) is a US government agency, established in 1972, that regulates millions of products that we use every day; everything from clothing to stoves, dishwashers, heaters, lawn mowers, lamps, ATVs, and more importantly here – sporting goods and equipment.  While they don’t have a standard or rules specifically for roller derby helmets, they do have tests that a bicycle helmet needs to pass before it can be sold in the States and, GUH, are they complex!  (They’re all listed at 16 CFR §1203 if you’re interested.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)  And while the tests are designed to simulate the various hazards and conditions found while bicycling, there are some roller derby-relevant tests that simulate some of the impact situations that can occur on the track.    

HECC:  HECC (short for the Hockey Equipment Certification Council, www.hecc.net) is a non-profit organization, established in 1978 as an independent certification body for amateur hockey equipment, with an emphasis on head protection (helmets!).  While the HECC doesn’t have the regulatory authority of the CPSC and doesn’t write laws, its standards are well-respected in hockey. USA Hockey, the National Federation of State High School Associations and the NCAA all require their players to wear some kind of HECC-certified head protection.  HECC is involved in developing tests and standards for hockey equipment and works closely with ASTM to develop the appropriate tests and certifications. 

ASTM (short for the American Society for Testing and Materials, although they’re worldwide now and go by ASTM International, www.astm.org) is the leader in international standards development, and with input from industry, regulators and the general public, develops standards for thousands of products including, you guessed it, sporting goods.  ASTM standard F1045-07 is the current standard for ice hockey helmets.  ASTM also has a standard for skateboarding helmets – F1492-08, so they’re definitely looking out for our brains.

Non-Certified:  This category is, well, exactly what it sounds like – helmets that haven’t been tested or certified to any standard.  This could be almost anything, even this:

 Okay, we know your ref would not allow you on the track wearing that, though there are a bunch of helmets out there that you could pick up and look good enough for derby use, and some may even say they’re safe for derby use.  At the same time, without certification, do you really know what you’re getting? 

For us, we care about helmet certification, whether it is a HECC certified or certified to meet the CPSC standard.  Yes, there’s a lot of boring government regulation and mind-numbing technical talk in all those tests and that’s why we’re explaining it to you.  Luckily, we have a cool derby-lovin’ lawyer (who used to be a lawyer with the CPSC) who broke it all down for us.

The bottom line is this – we don’t want to sell for derby use, or recommend using in derby, any helmet that isn’t either HECC-certified or certified to the CPSC §1203 standard.  For a helmet to bear either of those certifications, that means it had to go through hell and back in a testing lab and came out the other side proven to protect what’s inside – your brain!

Okay, okay, government regulation, technical requirements, BOOOOOOOOOORRRRRRRRRRING.  I love our lawyer dude and all, though I wanted to see for myself what all of this means, what really happens in the tests these labs do, and the lessons we could learn when it comes to derby.  That and I wanted to smash some stuff!

So in October, we sent some helmet samples to a testing lab that is accredited by the CPSC and ASTM to perform various tests and certify products.  They’re legit.  They’re also pretty cool - walls full of reports, banged up motorcycle helmets, bikes and neat stuff everywhere.  Then we went over to their facilities to watch!

DISCLAIMER – the testing that we did with the testing lab was informal and by no means met all the requirements to be certified to HECC or the CPSC’s rigorous standards.  They’re crazy complex, involve machinery and computers that need to be set up, g-force calculations, measurements to be taken and hella expensive - way beyond our budget for this project.  Since we knew going in that any helmet that’s already been certified to one of these standards has passed the full battery of tests to get that certification, we just wanted to see how that works and exactly what happens during these types of tests, and how that applies to roller derby.

Tests for ASTM F1492-08 (skateboarding helmets):   One of the tests a helmet has to pass before being certified to ASTM F1492-08 is a 3-foot drop and/or a 7 mph impact test.  Converted  to roller derby terms, 7 mph is similar to pack speed, so if you spend a lot of your time on the track in a pack, this is probably the speed you’d be going, and a realistic estimate of the impact force your helmet would take if you were to hit a hard surface at that speed.  We dropped each helmet in the same spot (meaning the impact was on the exact same spot) three times and there’s more information on what we saw in a few moments.  

Because we play roller derby on surfaces that include sport court, wood floors, banked wood tracks, polished concrete, outdoor roller hockey facilities, parking lots and pretty much anything flat with minimal debris, this test of dropping helmets onto a flat surface is the most relevant to most roller derby players worldwide.  Even for banked track roller derby, players that fall on the track or in-field, are falling on a primarily flat surface.  The rails are padded and the kick rails are also made of wood.  Since the certification tests involve metal hazards, we feel safer with a certified helmet saying hello to the kick rail.

Here’s an HECC-certified helmet strapped into the rig as part of the impact testing.

Tests for CPSC’s §1203 (bicycling helmets):   One of the impact tests a bicycle helmet is required to undergo to be certified to §1203 is twice the impact speed and height of the F1492-08 test.  This one simulates a 6-foot drop and/or a 14 mph impact. Converted to roller derby, that speed is equivalent to a jammer out of the pack, sprinting to score more points. Height-wise, it’s similar to a roller derby player (on skates, of course) falling flat on her noggin.  These are things that happen frequently in roller derby, so we felt this is similar to what happens to helmets during roller derby use.
We dropped 3 CSPC Certified and ASTM skateboard helmets that are used in roller derby today for the multiple-impact test and watched each helmet drop onto the same spot three times.  (See the yellow on the bottom of that flat surface the helmet is being dropped onto?  That's to mark the point of impact.)  

Some of the helmets cracked during the first drop.  I winced and figured that it would be all over.  Nope.  Cracks can happen and the certified helmets – even the ones with cracks in them - still performed better than a non-certified helmet ever would.  Yes.  The cracked helmets still passed a part of the rigorous testing regime!

The non-certified helmet on the other hand (and we only dropped one from the ASTM test’s three-foot height), did not crack.  It did, however, transfer pretty much all of the energy from the fall from the surface to the faux brains.  I did this when I saw the reading - O.O .... rubbed my eyes ... and then more of this O.O ...  Basically, to pass the ASTM standard, a helmet can only transfer a certain amount of energy from a combined three drop tests.  This non-certified helmet transferred double that total amount of impact force that the ASTM allows in THREE drops in ONE drop. 

What was really interesting to us is that we brought a non-certified soft foam helmet to the lab and they wouldn’t put it to the CPSC six-foot drop test.  O.O …. What!?  The lab guys told us they were concerned the helmet would damage their testing equipment – not because it was so awesomely sturdy that it would break the thing impacting it, it is because the helmet was so awful at dissipating the impact that it would’ve transferred all of the impact force to the testing rig.  Or, to convert that to real-world setting, the helmet was so bad at doing what it was supposed to do that the impact from the test would’ve gone straight through the helmet to its contents – your head!  What really scared us about this was that the helmet we’re talking about is a helmet that its manufacturers market as being safe and recommended for roller derby.  Yikes. 

Since we knew that all of the CSPC & ASTM skateboard helmets would pass the CSPC’s six-foot drop, I wanted to see what a HECC Certified helmet would do.

 Since I live in cartoons, I was hoping for mass explosions and since we're not all lucky enough to fall on just the backs of our heads, we tilted this bad boy to the side and let 'er go!  No mass destruction.  This helmet survived the 6-foot drop and passed this part of the CPSC impact test.

After that!  HAZARDS!!  Since bicyclists can encounter WAY more shiny objects to fall on than roller girls (unicorns and mystical creatures do not count), the CSPC & ASTM require helmets to withstand these delightful pieces of things.  (Notice the impact points in the pictures are a pointy wedge, or a rounded metal pillar.)  Meet blunt force trauma :insert hazards: and yes, this did dent the helmet after 1 fall!  It then basically got to the point where we ran out of spots on the helmets to hit and my stomach hurt from giggling at what else we could drop the helmets onto :)  

CERTIFICATIONS! WHY SHOULD I CARE!? My non-certified helmet is rly comfy! 

We’re not the only ones to take helmet certification seriously.  HECC will not certify a helmet that hasn’t passed the F1045-07 tests, and USA Hockey and NFSHSA won’t let its players play with helmets that aren’t HECC certified.  These organizations include more than a million hockey players combined, and they take these certifications so seriously that they won’t let their players step on the ice without a certified helmet. 

If you’re wearing a helmet that hasn’t been tested and certified by a third party (like an outside lab or CPSC-accredited testing facility), you’re taking the manufacturer, distributor or retailer’s word that the helmet is safe for a certain activity.  If it’s been tested and certified as passing a certain series of tests, you know that it’s not just marketing, it’s been through the wringer.  Today, there are no specific requirements or tests for roller derby helmets.  We think that the CPSC’s §1203 requirements and the HECC’s certification program are the best currently available measures of what a derby helmet goes through.  So if it’s been certified to one of those standards, we are comfortable it can hold up to the rigors of roller derby and protect your head.

We know that head injuries can happen any time there’s contact while playing roller derby, and no helmet can completely eliminate all of the risk.  We learned that wearing a helmet is a good idea and wearing a certified helmet is even better.

I, personally, will never wear a non-certified helmet on the track.  I will make sure that I always wear a helmet that’s HECC certified or passed the CPSC’s §1203 tests.  We at Wicked remain committed to the safety of our players and recommend that you thoroughly investigate your helmet before buying one (and evaluate the one you have now) and will continue to do our best to provide you with the safest – and most entertaining – derby things out there.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email me btrain@wickedskatewear.com or stop by one of our shops to talk to our awesome staff about helmets and roller derby safety.



  1. Thank you, B-Train, for conducting this research and putting together this information. It's important stuff. Yay brains!

  2. Interesting indeed...and kinda scary. I still don't understand why we can't skate with a bike helmet cuz I really appreciate all that ventilation. I mean so long as the bike helmet is certified.

    1. Hey! Have refs kicked you off the track with bike helmets? I've seen a few Pacific Northwest skaters rock the bike helmets over the years. Maybe they're concerned if there is a point on the helmet & it could go into someones eye? I'm just reaching at this point ;)

  3. Awesome! Thanks for your hard work and for caring about our brains!

    ♡C.U. Next Tuesday

  4. Just curious do they say how many times a helmet can take an impact before a new one should be bought? Is it three times? I haven't gone to read the testing information (but will). It's fantastic that you care about our safety to do look into the testing of our helmets, thank you!

    1. If I take a really good spill & bonk my noggin hard - I'm going to replace my helmet. I watched some helmets crack & absorb the impact well on the next drops. At the same time, I'm still going to get a new one :)

  5. Interesting reading. Thanks for that

  6. Would you be willing to share which helmets you tested? Upon investigation I found out that my Triple 8 brainsaver is not safety certified by anyone. Most of my teammates have this helmet as well. I want to know how much I should be pestering them to get something certified (I will be replacing my own). Thanks!

    1. Certified helmets are certified helmets regardless of brand :)

      Unfortunately, your sisters 'probably' won't listen to you until they bonk their head really well. It sucks - I know!

  7. ^This. I'm definitely in the market for a new helmet as mine has run its lifespan (and strangely fits the description of the helmet the science bros refused to test)I was discussing the need for a new helmet with the BF (I think he's getting xmas present ideas from me) and had mentioned your survey and results. And he wanted to know which brands rocked the certs. Where could I find this info that you all have been so thorough in researching? Thanks!

    1. Here are the certified helmets that we sell!

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  11. Helmets are very much used at riding the bikes, but they should also be used more at the construction sites. They should be worn in a proper way, check out if it is loose. Use the strap to tight it. If the helmet is still loose you better try another one.

    Arnold Brame
    Health and Safety Risk Assessments