Some Thoughts on Helmet Risk Management

February 16, 2017

The Ball is in Your Court

Katharine M. Nohr, JD

With all of the discussion about concussion prevention, assessment and treatment, there’s a fundamental reality that’s seldom addressed—the necessity of buckling the helmet chin strap. Helmets are designed to protect an athlete’s skull and will easily become dislodged and not perform as intended if they aren’t fastened properly. The chin strap is designed to secure the helmet to the player’s head to prevent the helmet from falling off and/or causing injury when it is loose enough to be driven into the head with the force of a fall or tackle.

As a certified triathlon official and triathlon safety director, I am constantly surprised at the number of cyclists who wear their bicycle helmets as hats. The USA Triathlon Competitive Rules and the International Triathlon Union rules require that helmet chin straps be buckled. Most athletes comply, but there were always those who violate the rule or, instead, keep their chin straps so loose that they dangle mid-throat. The chin straps would swing with every movement and if they fell, the helmet would surely topple off like a hat or almost strangle them by hanging from their neck.

This practice is prevalent with minors who are provided with all required safety equipment for their sport, including helmets. Parents’ faces beam as they snap pictures of their children riding shiny bikes, with helmet chin straps swinging as low as a jump rope. Do these parents fail to notice that little Emma or Joshua has no head protection if they crash?

By contrast, if you ride on an airplane anywhere in the world, flight attendants instruct passengers on how to fasten and unfasten their seatbelts on every single flight. They walk the aisles to make sure passengers are in compliance before the plane takes off.

Should sports organizations do the same for athletes required to wear helmets? Should a coach or designated person instruct the athletes before every practice session and game on how to properly fasten their chin strap? Should there be a check of every athlete’s chin strap before play commences? Your organization may already be doing this, but for those who pay little attention to helmet fit, chin strap fastening and tightening, you may wish to develop and implement such practices.

Tips for Helmet Safety

  1. Athletes should be required to wear a helmet at all times during practice and games/races.
  2. Parents who also participate in the activity should wear helmets, not only for their own protection, but to serve as an example to children.
  3. If a minor has an option to choose their own helmet, let them do so. They will be more likely to wear it.
  4. Helmets should fit properly and be positioned properly.
  5. The chin strap should be buckled and fit comfortably snug.
  6. Always replace the helmet after a crash. Damage to the helmet may not be visible.
  7. Inspect and maintain helmets regularly in accordance with manufacture recommendations.


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