What type of helmet is best for small children engaged in winter activities?

Posted on Friday, January 20, 2012

It's not winter in Canada if children don't spend time speeding down the slopes! Canadian tobogganing is a tradition handed down from generation to generation. It's been considered one of the safest winter activities for a long time.

Unfortunately, the arrival of winter is followed by an increase in visits to hospital emergency departments by young people arriving with head injuries resulting from winter activities, including tobogganing. Helmets are known to reduce the risk of head injury; however, with so many helmet options available today, which is the best one? Researchers at the University of Ottawa and the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Research Institute tried to answer this question. The results are published today in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics.

“In activities such as tobogganing or skiing, children are able to attain very high velocities,” explained Dr. Michael Vassilyadi, associate professor at the University of Ottawa's Department of Surgery, CHEO neurosurgeon and co-author of this study. “This creates a disproportionate amount of risk considering their underdeveloped skills necessary to protect themselves during unexpected events, such as falling or running into objects or other people.”

Currently, there is no certified winter recreational helmet available, so parents use what is available or no head protection at all. The study compared the protective characteristics of three types of helmets that are currently used by children ages 7 and under. Ice hockey, alpine ski and bicycling helmets were impacted at 2.0, 4.0, 6.0 and 8.0 metres/second at the front and side impact locations using a monorail drop rig in a lab setting. The impact surface and velocities were chosen to simulate an impact similar to that a child might experience during tobogganing.

“We defined helmet safety performance by the ability of a helmet to reduce acceleration of the head during impact,” said Blaine Hoshizaki, professor at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Health Sciences, head of the Neurotrauma Impact Laboratory and co-author of this study. “Helmets are designed and tested to mitigate the risk of an injury; they are not designed to eliminate head injuries. Parents must be vigilant and educate their children about ways to be safe and have fun outdoors.”

Depending on impact velocity, different helmet types offered better protection against brain injury. The ice hockey helmet was the most protective at lower-velocity impacts (2-6 metres/second), and the bicycle helmet was the most protective at a high-velocity impact (8 metres/second). Alpine helmets had limited effectiveness at both low and high velocity impacts. This research provides insights regarding the limitations of the helmets, but confirms that all helmets are protective.

This research was funded by ThinkFirst Canada, a national non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of brain and spinal cord injuries.

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