Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic measured 11 top-of-the-line football helmets against their leatherhead counterparts of the 20th century and found that leather helmets offered protection on par with and in some cases ahead of modern helmets.
Researchers conducted impact tests, crashing helmets together, at the severity level of 95 percent of hits at the prep and collegiate level. The leather helmets offered protection as good as or better than modern helmets in many situations and angles measured in the study.
Adam Bartsch, the lead researcher, said "The point of this study is not to advocate for a return to leather helmets but, rather, to test the notion that modern helmets must be more protective than older helmets simply because 'newer must be better.'"
Researchers note that severe head injuries decreased with newer helmet safety standards, but this is because severe skull fracture and catastrophic brain injury are the the measurement categories for helmet safety standards. Thus modern helmets offer better protection against severe head injuries than their leather counterparts, but are no better at protecting the head in routine situations.
Edward Benzel, Chair of the Cleveland Clinic's Department of Neurological Surgery, said, "preventing skull fractures is vitally important, but concussion prevention needs to be an integral part of the standards as well. Also, helmets need to protect against the cumulative effects of multiple lower impact blows that may not lead to a concussion immediately but may add up to cause severe long-term head, neck or brain injuries."
The full study can be read at the Journal of Neurosurgery website.