We’re going to start this off with a proclamation: Yes, you should always wear a head & neck restraint (HNR) on track.
If you’re racing, the use of an HNR is mandatory, but that’s often not the case for HPDE / open track days in street cars. We believe it’s time to re-think these rules.
We should probably explain the reason we believe this article needs to be written: we’re not sure why, exactly, but lately we’ve been seeing discussions about whether or not HPDE drivers should wear a head and neck restraint when on track. What’s surprising is the number of people taking a negative position (no, you don’t need one) depending on the circumstances. We’re not trying to single out, belittle or talk down to anyone here, but we find it difficult to defend that position given everything we’ve learned in the past two decades.
In one such discussion in a motorsports-dedicated group on Facebook, a video was linked in which a driver explained five common safety set-ups for driving on the Nurburgring and how he felt a helmet with HNR wasn’t necessarily the best choice. It’s important to note that in TF (open track day) sessions at the Ring the track is treated as a public road, which means you must have full visibility of your mirrors and you must be able to check your blind spot for traffic. As a result of those laws, helmets are not mandatory and head and neck restraints are actually forbidden because (according to the government) it prevents you from having full visibility of your mirrors and removes your ability to effectively check your blind spot. We disagree with this theory, but if you’re running at the Ring you must play by their rules.
We’re not going to comment about whether we agree or disagree with one, some, or all of the opinions expressed in that video (although we think the title of the video is terribly irresponsible). Instead, it’s time to make another proclamation: We don’t know of any racetrack in the USA that will allow you to drive without a helmet, so it’s up to YOU to elevate your safety measures to match the situation you’re putting yourself into.
Every event we’ve driven in and every event in which we will drive in the future requires a properly rated auto helmet, so let’s examine what that means for our safety.
Given what we’ve learned about the forces at play in an impact, how those forces can cause head and neck injuries, and accounting for the mandate of a helmet when on a race track, do you think you’re providing yourself the best protection if you’re strapping a 3-5 pound helmet on your head while not using an HNR? For clarity's sake, here's an illustration to show the difference in neck movement:
Very few impacts, be they on the track or the street, contain no lateral movement and even in a street-legal vehicle with airbags it’s not uncommon for the driver to travel between the airbag(s) and A-pillar, increasing the chance of an impact to the head and, of course, furthering the travel of your neck. When you add 3-5 pounds of weight to your head and you’re involved in an impact, you’re asking your neck to do a job for which it is not adapted. In addition, you run the risk of a basilar skull fracture which, as many of us already know, has taken the lives of many racing drivers prior to the mandate of head and neck restraints.
If you’re not aware that traveling past/through airbags is likely, there’s plenty of proof available online to validate the claim. To illustrate, we’re going to include one such link that shows this movement particularly well in a series of crash tests. All of these tests include lateral movement (i.e. not hitting head-on in the center of the vehicle) and the dummy either contacts or comes dangerously close to contacting something (usually the A-pillar). After watching that video and seeing the movement of the head and neck without a helmet, it shouldn't be hard to understand why we take the position of, “Yes, you should always wear a head & neck restraint on track.”
So…what are the take-aways from this?
If you’re tracking a street car with a standard three-point seat belt, take a look at the range of Hybrid devices from available from Competition Motorsport. These devices are safe to use with a three-point belt, and if you decide to move from HPDE to Time Trials or wheel-to-wheel racing you can continue to use them with a six-point racing harness.
If you’ve already installed a four- or six-point harness in your vehicle and you’re not wearing an HNR, we’d like you to reconsider your decision. Because harnesses are designed to keep your body firmly in place in an impact, your body and head will not decelerate at the same rate. Your head will continue to move at the speed and in the direction the car was traveling until your neck forces it to decelerate. By wearing a helmet with no HNR while strapped into a properly tightened harness, you are likely to be increasing the chance of sustaining an injury. Perhaps the best-known real-world example of this can be seen here.
If you’re tracking a street car with a four- or six-point harness, any of the HNR devices available at Competition Motorsport can be worn to increase your safety while on track.
From our perspective there’s only one safe choice: always wear a head & neck restraint on track.
Note: Some organizations have begun mandating the use of a head and neck restraint in any vehicle that has harnesses installed, so remember to check with your event coordinator or sanctioning body prior to your event.