Thursday, 12 November 2009

Incentives matter: football helmet file

This comes from a story in the Wall Street Journal about head injuries in football in the US. Are helmets part of the answer to head injuries or part of the cause? The incentives on how you play the game change depending on whether or not you are wearing a helmet.

The authors of the article write,
"Some people have advocated for years to take the helmet off, take the face mask off. That'll change the game dramatically," says Fred Mueller, a University of North Carolina professor who studies head injuries. "Maybe that's better than brain damage."
But while these helmets reduced the chances of death on the field, they also created a sense of invulnerability that encouraged players to collide more forcefully and more often.
What nobody knew at the time is that these small collisions may be just as damaging. The growing body of research on former football players suggests that brain damage isn't necessarily the result of any one trauma, but the accumulation of thousands of seemingly innocuous blows to the head.

The problem is that there's nothing any helmet could do to stop the brain from taking lots of small hits. To become certified for sale, a football helmet has to earn a "severity index" score of 1200, according to testing done by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or Nocsae. Dr. Robert Cantu, a Nocsae board member and chief of neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., says that to prevent concussions, helmets would have to have a severity index of 300—about four times better than the standard. "The only way to make that happen, Dr. Cantu says, "is to make the helmet much bigger and the padding much bigger."

The problem with that approach, he says—other than making players look like Marvin the Martian—is that heavier helmets would be more likely to cause neck injuries.
The article also makes an interesting comparison,
One of the strongest arguments for banning helmets comes from the Australian Football League. While it's a similarly rough game, the AFL never added any of the body armor Americans wear. When comparing AFL research studies and official NFL injury reports, AFL players appear to get hurt more often on the whole with things like shoulder injuries and tweaked knees. But when it comes to head injuries, the helmeted NFL players are about 25% more likely to sustain one.

Andrew McIntosh, a researcher at Australia's University of New South Wales who analyzed videotape, says there may be a greater prevalence of head injuries in the American game because the players hit each other with forces up to 100% greater. "If they didn't have helmets on, they wouldn't do that," he says. "They know they'd injure themselves."
This is just the latest example of what economists call the Peltzman Effect. That is, the tendency of people to react to a safety regulation by increasing other risky behaviour, offsetting some or all of the benefit of the regulation.


Eric Crampton said...

Bugger - had that queued for tomorrow.

StephenR said...

Have read a few 'exposes' on american football injuries - players will actually lead a tackle with their head. Insane.

scrubone said...

There was a study done with headgear in rugby (using a high school team) a few years ago in Dunedin.

It didn't last long from memory.

Unknown said...

Wonderful post about a story in the Wall Street Journal about head injuries in football, good facts in it also good to share.


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