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AolNews   2010-10-23

Opinion: Want Safer Football? Ditch the Helmet

Leonard Evans    Special to AOL News

(Oct. 23) -- As the number of head injuries in football increases, we hear more and more about the need for better helmets. This may be barking up the wrong tree.

Unprotected rugby players play a full-contact sport with tackling similar to that in football. Yet they don't experience frequent injuries. And the reason is important, not just for football players, but everyone else concerned about safety.

Rugby, from which football evolved, is really big in much of the English-speaking world, although many Americans learned about it from Clint Eastwood's 2009movie "Invictus," which re-enacted events surrounding South Africa's triumph in front of their home fans in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

The most noticeable difference between the rugby portrayed in the movie and football is that the rugby players wore nothing more than required to distinguish between the teams. Yet they're not injured more than heavily padded, highly protected footballers.

How could this be?

It is an illustration of a universal effect that too often goes unrecognized by safety advocates: People change their behavior in response to what they fear might happen to them.

Using a bare head as an attacking weapon is less attractive than using one encased in a helmet meeting all the latest standards.

As football players become faster and heavier, they become more and more lethal weapons. The damage they inflict on players they hit increases. Helmets can do little to reduce this. That is, unless the helmets become so large as to materially affect the game.

The same principles apply elsewhere.

Over the past several decades, for example, carmakers have, at the prodding of the federal government, stuffed cars full of crash-protection technology. The problem is that, if it becomes safer to crash, the risk of crashing increases, and that can easily overwhelm the benefits of the crash-protection technology.

Frontal airbags, to take one obvious example, reduce the risk that a car's driver will be killed in a crash by 8 percent. Although difficult to measure, we can be near certain that the perception that airbags provide far more protection than they really do affects the risk that a driver will crash.

If the enhanced feeling of safety led drivers to increase speeds by an imperceptible one mile per hour, this would wash away all the benefits of the airbag. That's to say nothing of drivers who indulge in other far riskier behaviors behind the wheel, such as texting while driving.

What's more, there is a body of opinion that, while airbags do reduce the risk that drivers are killed in crashes, they increase the risk to pedestrians and other drivers on the road.

Overselling the benefits of better football helmets is fraught with the same perils as overselling the benefits of airbags. By 2003, more than 40,000 Americans had died in seats protected by airbags.

We should take care that in the future we are not counting how many football players suffered permanent injury while wearing helmets of improved design.

The only way to seriously address injuries on the road and on the football field is to prevent the most devastating collisions. This can be achieved by enacting and enforcing sensible rules. It is a delusion to believe that new equipment can make it safe to crash. A little safer yes. But safe, no.

If audiences want the blood and thunder of unconstrained gladiator fights, and adult athletes knowingly take the risks to satisfy them in exchange for huge rewards, it seems to me that a free society should not prohibit that. Perhaps deplore, but not prohibit.

However, it is a cruel hoax to bury the risks under the falsehood that a better helmet can prevent them.

Leonard Evans is an internationally recognized traffic safety expert and author of "Traffic Safety."

Other op-eds by Leonard Evans on AOL News
The Lesson of Toyota's Recall
Congress' Deadly Fixation on Toyota
Auto Technology That Kills

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