Impact Sensors: A Missing Piece of Head Injury Programs
Protecting the status quo. A third reason impact sensors haven’t, pardon the pun, made the impact I thought they would when I first began writing about them six years ago has been the lack of support by groups and organizations which appear to be satisfied with the status quo.
On February 16, 2015, my local paper, The Boston Globe, came out with a powerful editorial in which it urged college, high school, and recreational leagues in contact and collision sports to consider mandating use of impact sensors, or, at the very least, experimenting with the technology, to alert the sideline personnel to hits that might cause concussion, and to track data on repetitive head impacts.
The Globe editorial viewed as “shortsighted” the reluctance of players and coaches to adopt the use of impact sensor technology out of fear that sensors, if they triggered an alert, might result in a player’s removal from the game for concussion screening (that, after all, is the whole point) or result in the player being labeled a wimp (what NIH’s Institute of Medicine has labeled the “culture of resistance”). The editorial called on professional leagues, like the NFL, to follow suit, suggesting that star players, by using the devices, could help break down barriers to their more widespread use.
Unfortunately, on February 19, 2015, just three days after than the Globe went on record as urging the NFL to set an example for colleges, high school, and youth leagues to follow by equipping its players with sensors (as the Arena Football League had already done the previous season and continues to require in 2018), the league did exactly the opposite.
As first reported by Sports Business Journal and, later that same day, by The New York Times, the NFL decided to suspend a pilot program using sensors in players’ helmets for the 2015 season because data collected during the 2013 season was not considered reliable enough (for what, they didn’t say), and because the N.F.L. Players Association questioned whether the data would be kept private and not used against a player. As far as I am aware, no testing of sensors has since been undertaken by the NFL.
Researchers who have collected impact data for years using the $1,000 per sensor HITS system, including Stefan Duma, who runs the biomedical engineering department at Virginia Tech and helped develop the STAR helmet rating system, were quick to say that the league was being too careful. While not perfect (a 2017 study of commercially available sensors found significant error rates), he argued that sensors provided useful data, not only in football, but in analyzing head hits in sports like soccer and hockey. I agree.
Duma speculated that one reason the N.F.L. and the players’ union might have been ambivalent about the use of sensors was because they might show that players were receiving more blows to the head than was commonly thought. He feared that the decision could dampen research efforts by others and didn’t acknowledge “all the good things” that sensors do.