After years of debate on ways to make the sport safer, a standards panel approved in May the first specifications for a pole vaulting helmet, spurring production of several models.
Head injury experts worry that some new helmets have come on the market without empirical data to show the need for or the effectiveness of the headgear.
"There is limited data for some of these kinds of sports," said Dr. Frederick P. Rivara, a pediatrics professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine who has studied helmet use among youngsters. "Before we push these kinds of helmets we need to have an idea on the effectiveness."
Dr. Tony Strickland, director of the Sports Concussion Institute at the Centinela Freeman Regional Medical Center in Marina del Rey, shares the same concerns, adding that poorly designed helmets could interfere with an athlete's hearing and vision.
Because athletic associations and government agencies usually don't require helmets until a standard is set for thickness, shape, material and design, a campaign to mandate helmets for a sport often starts by persuading a testing agency to set a standard. Thus, the four panels are the target of heavy lobbying by helmet manufacturers and the parents of injured athletes.
In the case of the pole vaulting helmet, Dare's father, Edward Dare, and his former Penn State coach, Tim Curley, launched a four-year campaign to improve pole-vaulting landing pads and require helmets.
Pole vaulting ranks far below most other sports in total head injuries. In 2001, the American Journal of Sports Medicine published a study that found 31 catastrophic head injuries associated with pole vaulting in the high school, college and amateur ranks between 1982 and 1998. Those accidents resulted in 16 deaths, according to the study.
The study did not compare pole vaulting injuries with other sports, but a Consumer Product Safety Commission study found that head injury incidents for pole-vaulters were relatively rare compared with other sports such as basketball (23,908), baseball (20,583) and football (20,128) in 1995 alone.
One of the authors of the 2001 pole vaulting study, 1972 Olympic pole vaulting bronze medalist, Jan Johnson, has been highly critical of the helmets. Johnson, who heads the pole vault safety committee for U.S. Track and Field, the governing body for high school track and field, said there has only been one catastrophic head injury since larger landing pads were adopted in 2002. "I think the problem was solved that way," he said.
Although the study did not investigate the pros and cons of a pole vault helmet, Johnson says he worries that they may cause spinal injuries by hyper-flexing a vaulter's neck on impact with the padding. "I am not a real strong advocate for helmets in pole vaulting," he said.
Even the ASTM, while considering a pole vaulting helmet, warned that such headgear would not eliminate the risk of head injuries altogether.
But Dare's father continues to press the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Assns. to require helmets for all pole-vaulters.
Dare said there was no evidence that the helmets cause neck injuries. As for Johnson's suggestion that the larger padding has solved the problem, Dare said: "Tell that to the next parents whose son or daughter vaults and hits their head on the asphalt and dies."
Russ wrote:We argue in our paper that it would be unwise - both in terms of legality and safety - for the NFHS or any rule making body (e.g., state associations, NCAA, USATF) to require helmets in pole vaulting.
Russ wrote:We take the position that the likelihood of hyperflexion injuries is sufficiently great (using medical research data provided by Drs. SooHoo and Chang) that ...
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