Conflicting Reports: Helmet-makers Chime in on Recent Virginia Tech Helmet Study


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A recent whitewater helmet comparison test from Virginia Tech University has drawn some attention from whitewater helmet manufacturers and distributors. Using its STAR rating system, the Virginia Tech Biomechanics Helmet Lab impact-tests helmets to evaluate their ability to reduce linear acceleration and rotational velocity of the head resulting from a range of impacts a whitewater kayaker might experience. Virginia Tech has conducted the tests since 2011 and says the ratings are the culmination of more than 10 years of research on head impacts in sports to identify which helmets best reduce concussion risk.

But while Sweet Protection’s Wanderer II and Rocker Whitewater helmets received high ratings in the test, other companies have expressed issues with the process. Below, Paddling Life hears from two prominent headpiece players — Mark Deming from NRS, which distributes WRSI helmets, and Shred Ready founder Tom Sherburne—on their thoughts on the Virginia Tech test, as well as a rebuttal from the testing organizers at Virginia Tech.

 Mark Deming, NRS (WRSI Helmet Distributor)

We are aware of the recently publicized whitewater helmet comparison test from Virginia Tech University. We take all safety questions seriously and are examining the methodology and findings of the test. Every WRSI helmet meets or exceeds CE 1385 standard for whitewater helmets for protection against blunt force trauma, which is the globally accepted measure for whitewater helmet safety.

Superior Protection From Blunt Force Impact

Our preliminary assessment is that Virginia Tech results do not accurately reflect the protective capabilities of whitewater helmets as applied in real-world paddling scenarios. The testing methods VT used measure the helmets’ effectiveness against concussions caused by shaking of the brain within the skull due to acceleration of the head. WRSI helmets are engineered to protect primarily against life-threatening injuries in which the brain is directly harmed via blunt force impact to the skull. Our internal testing, as well as CE testing, provides a more accurate assessment of a whitewater helmet’s safety by measuring direct impact to the skull when blunt force is applied to the helmet.

In short, the Virginia Tech test appears to have been focused on different metrics from those commonly accepted for whitewater helmets. While concussions are a serious concern amongst whitewater paddlers, preventing life-threatening direct brain injuries is a whitewater helmet’s most essential function and the primary design objective of all WRSI helmet models. In fact, it was just such an injury that caused the death of kayaker Lukas Turner in 1998, which motivated his father, Cal, to create the Whitewater Research and Safety Institute.

Developed in Partnership With Johns Hopkins University

With the goal of developing a safer whitewater helmet, WRSI worked with researchers and engineers at Johns Hopkins University to design groundbreaking new technologies to mitigate the risk of blunt force traumas to the brain. These technologies include 3-Layer Impact Absorption, which protects the skull and brain from blunt force trauma by dissipating the force of impact, and the interconnect Retention System, which self-tightens the helmet under hydraulic forces to hold the helmet securely in place.

We have conducted extensive internal testing of WRSI helmets to measure their effectiveness in preventing life-threatening brain injuries resulting from blunt force trauma to the skull. In this measure, WRSI helmets routinely outperform other brands.

Read more here:

Tom Sherburne, Founder, Shred Ready Helmets

Paddling Life also recently heard from someone who has been building whitewater helmets for about as long as anyone in the industry: Tom Sherburne, the former owner of Shred Ready Helmets. Below is his summation of the faults he feels are part of Virgina Tech study.

1) The SR standard helmet seems to have been tested differently; all models they tested were of the same materials on construction. The SR standard full face, half cut and full cut are all the same shell, foams, and construction, but the results varied a lot between them. They offer no explanation for these differing results. Why did they show such variety of results? Those are the same exact helmet with same exact materials, and they had wildly different scores.

2) The research was not peer reviewed. Their methods and the math was not very well described. This looks like a senior engineering project. Did they follow a standard testing protocols for different helmet certifications (see number 4)?

3) Their apparatus may not mimic the actual conditions experienced by kayakers in general. Shooting a projectile is different than flipping over, where you have the effects of water slowing the head. The experiment also just picked two random speeds to measure the hitting of the helmet.. it measures something, but not all hits are at that speed or that angle, so it’s an odd measurement in reality. I don’t know how valid this lab test is to real life conditions, but in science speak this is called external validity.

4) Some of the photos of the helmets look suspicious. Some helmets were strapped tightly to the headforms where other helmets it looks as if they were loosely fitted.   If all the samples were not fixed to the headforms in the same manner it could affect the results making comparisons difficult.

5) How were models and samples chosen? For example, they tested the SR ION but not the Zeta which uses two different foams. Why didn’t they test the Zeta? Were the helmets donated, or were they purchased? If so, who purchased them?

Sweet Founder/Head of Design-Products, Stale Moller

“We design and engineer helmets not only for whitewater kayaking, but as well for snowboarding/skiing and all genres within bicycling. Even though we started out back in the days with white water helmets, we have more than 20 years of experience in managing impacts in a vast variety of sports and different impact scenarios. A lot of the learning we have achieved from other sports, with significantly tougher requirements, has been circled back into our Whitewater helmets. Advanced helmet shell materials and thicker EPP shock absorbing foam are some of those features. In addition, white water is unique in the way that you’re submerged in water, and that there’s a higher likelihood of multiple impacts than in other sports. This requires a unique approach. We even design different helmets for different kinds of Whitewater kayaking. Big water and playboating has different requirements compared to creeking.


We appreciate that there is continues research performed on all sorts of head injuries related to sports, and as well new test protocols. When travelling at speed, you will always have two impact components which you need to manage. One is the linear impact, the other is the rotational motion. The latter component is not part of the EN 1385 test procedure. We’ve been working with Mips since 2011 to test and implement technology for reducing the effect of rotational motion on all our bike and snow helmets but are yet to offer this technology on our Whitewater helmets. We do, however, keep rotational motion in mind when designing the helmets.

Virginia Tech has different test equipment and test protocols than what we use both in our internal and external testing, and I believe there’s always something we can learn from it. We follow their research and test protocols with great interest, and very often we find correlation between what they are doing, and what we are seeing in our testing.”

Virginia Tech Responds (By Stefan M. Duma, PhD/Harry C. Wyatt Professor of Engineering/Director, Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS), Virginia Tech

We recently came across your article about our whitewater helmet testing results. Unfortunately, your story is full of false statements that do not help your sport.

For example, the study is peer reviewed and was published last fall in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering.  I have attached a copy to this email.  Most of the comments in your article are readily addressed in this paper.  The math and testing specifications are all clearly detailed.

Another example is the statement by Tom Sherburne that similar helmets “had wildly different scores.”  This is simply a false and incorrect statement.  In our paper the helmets he refers to are the FF, C and FC.  If you look at Figure 6, all three are grouped together with very similar scores.  Within those helmets, they do have varying mass as see in Table 1 which explains the small variation. Other similar helmets by other manufacturers are also tightly grouped together.

Perhaps the biggest misconception is that the standard CN 1385 is a good standard, when it is not, and I would say it is just about the worst standard in any sport.  Your readers should understand that this standard only requires a drop height of about 12 inches and the headform has to measure just under 250g.  Never mind that there is no account for rotational kinematics, this is by far the easiest standard of any sport.  That is an extremely low drop height, and 250g is near skull fracture or fatal head acceleration.  This is why we have about half of the helmets rated so lowly at 1 star or less.  The CN 1385 standard is incredibly easy to pass.

Stefan M. Duma, PhD/Harry C. Wyatt Professor of Engineering/Director, Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS), Virginia Tech


  1. The most salient criticism (to me) is Mr. Deming’s comment that helmets are designed to protect against blunt force trauma but that VT (allegedly) tested for concussions caused by head acceleration. That issue was not addressed by Dr. Duma. Saying that “most” criticisms are answered in the report is fine, but the “blunt force v. acceleration” issue seems to be as easy to address as the others on which he did actually comment. I don’t want to wade through the whole report, so I would appreciate a short answer on that topic.


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