Some of you may be aware of the ‘2022 whitewater helmet ratings’ that Virginia Tech released a short while ago (https://www.helmet.beam.vt.edu/whitewater-helmet-ratings.html). Virginia Tech tested 24 whitewater helmets from major brands such as Sweet Protection, WRSI, Shred Ready and NRS, in order to evaluate their ability to “reduce linear and rotational acceleration of the head from a range of whitewater and paddle sport head impacts”. The results where very interesting (pictured below), and may have been upsetting for some of the aforementioned companies. In this blog post, I will share my thoughts on the results of the testing, and whether I think the performance of certain helmets should be re-evaluated.

So who are Virginia Tech? They are a public research university which carries out lab-based testing of various helmets across a range of sports including: american football, hockey, cycling, horse riding, skiing, snowboarding and now whitewater kayaking. Their ratings are supposedly an independent and objective assessment of helmet performance without any manufacturer influence, which should mean that testing is both objective and accurate… is that the case?

The top 9 helmets are probably no surprise, but the bottom 12 certainly are. Sweet Protection own the top 5 spots with the Wanderer and Rocker variants, followed by Shred Ready in position 6-8 with the half and full-cut; the top 7 helmets all score 4 or 5 stars which is to be expected. Below that, the results take a serious turn for the worst. In postion 10 we have the NRS Chaos side cut, below this helmets score only 1 or 2 stars, including all of the WRSI range and pretty much all the freestyle helmets (such as the Sweet Strutter and Shred Ready Super Scrappy). It is perhaps unsurprising that a helmet like the Shred Ready Outfitter Pro which costs around $50 is rated only 1 star, but a helmet in the $180 range such as the WRSI Trident or Current should definitely score higher!

Virginia Tech include an explanation of their testing and a link to their methodology (https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/111764/Whitewater%20STAR%20Methodology.pdf?sequence=6&isAllowed=y), but I will highlight the salient points. Each helmet was rated based on 6 different impact tests done using a pendulum impactor test rig, this was intended to measure linear and rotational acceleration which correlates with concussion risk. The impact tests were carried out using two different impact severities and 3 impact angles (pictured below).

Understandably WRSI and NRS were quick to respond (https://www.nrs.com/learn/virginia-tech-whitewater-helmet-study). In the article, they defend their line of helmets saying that every “helmet meets or exceeds CE 1385 standard” and that “our internal testing (…) provides a more accurate assessment of a whitewater helmet’s safety”. I must admit that the phrasing is rather corporate, and makes it sound like they have been caught out and are attempting to invalidate Virginia Tech’s results, but I will leave that decision up to you.

The article does contain one or two interesting arguments which corroborate my own take on the testing. WRSI state that their helmets “are engineered to protect primarily against life-threatening injuries in which the brain is directly harmed via blunt force impact to the skull,” and that Virginia Tech “focused on different metrics from those commonly accepted for whitewater helmets”. This is a good point, indeed most of our helmets will only be used to protect against the odd scrape and perhaps a friend’s boat as they boof over you. In this scenario, many of the helmets may not be good at preventing concussion, but will still protect against the sharp, slicy rocks that paddlers encounter on a regular basis. If you look at how the helmets were impacted from the front and side, freestyle helmets with broad bills would inevitably score poorly and yet those bills would provide a much needed air-bubble if a paddler was pinned. Freestyle helmets are also intended to be lightweight, and many are not meant to be used on anything harder than Grade 4. In addition, the chin guards or solid ear protection found on most full-face helmets (and the Shred Ready Full Cut) would surely protect more of your head from impact, even if they decreased concussion prevention. The testing also fails to take into account a helmets fit, and while to a certain extent this is subjective, some helmets are clearly much more adjustable and fit better… a poorly adjusted, loose-fitting helmet is never going to protect against anything.

I think overall, the results of the Virginia Tech testing surely have some validity and should be taken into account when buying your next helmet, but can neither be wholly accepted or completely disregarded… after all, the quality of some helmets is obvious just from picking them up, and the adjustability of others is seriously lacking. Perhaps it is a good thing that helmet manufacturers are questioning their designs and worrying about public perception. I hope you enjoyed this post and found it useful, if you’d like to be emailed next time I post then be sure to sign up below!