When the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab released its first set of ratings for hockey helmets in 2015, the top of the chart was empty. No helmet had earned the highest score of five stars.

That vacancy has just been filled, and the first-ever five-star rating awarded to the CCM FitLite 500. 

Before a hockey helmet can be sold, it must pass an impact-protection standard established by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But not all helmets on the market are equally effective at shielding a player’s brain from injury, and the standard, which is pass-fail, doesn’t allow consumers to compare the protection offered by different models.

The Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings provide more detail, using star ratings between zero and five to indicate how well a given helmet reduces head acceleration during an impact, a measurement correlated with a lower risk of head injuries.

“We supplement the standard by providing additional data so consumers can see the relative differences between helmets,” said Steve Rowson, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering and director of the Helmet Lab.

Rowson helped develop the helmet ratings in collaboration with Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and the Helmet Lab’s founder. The team, which got their start testing football helmets, branched out to hockey in 2014.

“For the first time, consumers have an opportunity to purchase a five-star hockey helmet,” said Duma, who is also the interim director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “Helmet companies, players, parents; we all want to keep athletes safe. With our first set of ratings, we saw that there was an opportunity for improvement, and companies like CCM have responded.” 

A hockey game is packed with opportunities for players to hit their heads on rigid surfaces: the ice, the glass, another player’s helmet. And hockey helmets tend to be light and thin, which limits their ability to cushion the force of those impacts.

The new CCM helmet contains optimized padding systems that reduce head acceleration for a range of possible impact scenarios. 

“It manages the impact energy better, and that shows in the rating,” Rowson said. 

Each helmet’s STAR rating is the result of 48 impact tests designed specifically for hockey players.

Data from thousands of real impacts recorded during hockey games helped the Virginia Tech team design a laboratory setup to simulate those hits accurately.

In the lab, a dummy headform struck by an anvil mimics a player’s impact with a hard surface while sensors in the head measure the force. The team repeats these tests hundreds of times, using consumer helmets purchased from retailers, to evaluate how well each model reduces the head’s linear and rotational acceleration. That reduction in acceleration is translated into the helmet’s STAR rating.

Until the Bauer RE-AKT 200 netted four stars in the ratings earlier this year, no helmet had earned more than three.

But Duma and Rowson, who publish the details of their testing methods and make them available to manufacturers, say that one goal of the helmet ratings is to give companies an additional tool to hone their designs. With a four- and a five-star helmet now on the market, the approach seems to be paying off.

The improvements in safety echo the trend the team saw for football helmets, which they began rating in 2011. The first batch of ratings, released after two years of development, included just one five-star helmet; today, virtually all new helmets earn high marks.

“Companies are using the methodology as a tool to optimize design,” Rowson said.

The Helmet Lab is extending its reach to an even broader pool of athletes, developing test methods and tools for a range of other sports equipment, including bicycle helmets and soccer headgear.

Current ratings for football and hockey helmets are available online and are updated on a rolling basis as new helmets are released.

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