Interview: Dr. Chris Leatt on the Neck Brace, Collarbone Breaks, Safety Over Fashion & More

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As the designer and creator of the Neck Brace Dr. Chris Leatt has significantly contributed to modern motorcycle protection. Although, despite the technological advances and revolution in head/neck protection the neck brace has had a slow start to the motorcycle scene, with few riders/racers willing to adopt the protective device. Read on to learn how the neck brace works, what sparked the idea for motorcycle neck protection, a scientific response to the often-voiced rumour of a connection between neck braces and collarbone injuries and more in a recent interview by pinkbike with Dr. Chris Leatt himself.

What is your role at Leatt?

Initially, I wore many hats, now I am the chairman of the board and head up R&D efforts.

What is your background? How did you come to invent the neck brace?

I trained as a medical doctor, worked in various disciplines and ultimately decided on a surgical specialty. During my specialization, I invented the neck brace. This came about after I attended an enduro motorcycle event near Cape Town, South Africa – where a rider I knew fell and broke his neck. I was post-call and with my young son Matthew who was 4 years old at the time, so I wasn’t riding that day, when a paramedic asked me to help him with the fallen rider. Alan Selby had fallen over the handlebars at relatively low speed. I proceeded to attempt to resuscitation him, which despite having all the correct equipment at hand was not successful. Matthew had just ridden his first little motorcycle and with this in mind, I began to work on the neck brace to satisfy myself I was doing all in my power to keep Matthew safe during his future riding.

 

How does the Leatt neck brace work? How did you test it?

It works as an alternative load path technology (ALPT) injury. In other words, some of the force transmitted to the neck in a fall onto your head is redirected safely to other body structures. By reducing the magnitude of the neck force, the likelihood of an injury is reduced. Consider a high jumper, at a certain point when the bar is continuously raised, the athlete will not be able to clear the bar. Say you fall over the handlebars and land on your head. The force would usually be transmitted from the ground, to the helmet, then to the neck – all caused by the weight of your body compressing and moving your neck and head. With a neck brace on, the force is transmitted from the ground to your helmet in the same way, however the helmet at a point now touches the braces and unloads (ALPT) some of the force onto the brace. The amount of force transmitted down the neck is thereby reduced as is the risk of injury. The bar is just too high for our high jumper to clear. Testing is done in a number of ways, including physical testing on dummies in various scenarios, lab testing of components of the brace, complex computer modelling and now with the release of the EMS action sport study – 10 years of real life crash data is available. This study and much more on testing can be found on our web site.

Many riders claim that you are more likely to break your collarbone or get a head injury in a crash with a neck brace on. Is there any truth to that? 

This is probably the biggest misconception with respect to the brace. You are LESS likely to break your collarbone wearing a LEATT brace than without one. Let me explain; you break your collarbone in one of three ways, namely 1) a fall on an outstretched arm, where the force is transmitted up your arm to your shoulder, where your collarbone being the “weak link” fractures to prevent a more serious injury. Collarbone fractures generally heal without complication. 2) A fall directly onto your shoulder. 3) Your helmet rim strikes your collarbone.

As we know, collarbones are one of the most common fractures in riders with or without a neck brace. If one considers causes 2) and 3) above, if you fell on your left shoulder you would expect a left sided collarbone fracture. If the brace was the cause of collarbone fractures, you would expect to see this occur on the opposite side as the head and neck would be moving to the right, however, the brace is designed to protect this helmet rim strike with a collarbone relief area whereby the helmet rim strikes the brace upper surface and not the collarbone, the force is dissipated and does not cause an indriven right-sided collarbone fracture.

This is demonstrated by dummy testing with an instrumented collarbone incorporated into our test dummy that measures peak clavicle (collarbone) forces in all the impact scenarios we test. Additionally, there was a reduction in collarbone injuries cited in the EMS study alluded to above, as a result of cause 3) also discussed above.

Modern riders are reluctant to wear a hydration pack, much less a Leatt brace. Has fashion taken its toll on protection devices?

We always aim to promote safety over fashion but at the same time, we design our safety products and apparel so that riders don’t need to compromise on either. It is our strong belief that the neck brace should be an integral part of every rider's equipment when riding. Leatt neck braces are very slim, lightweight and aesthetically very well designed, so they look good and radically reduce the risk of serious injury. With top models weighing in at under 700grams.

It is our company mission to educate consumers on the benefits of neck braces and abolish some the myths surrounding them. We collaborate with professional athletes and ambassadors to primarily raise confidence in the product and in turn, as it becomes more popular, this promotes the neck brace as something cool and trendy. As the sport continues to get faster and bigger, we are confident that neck braces will grow in their popularity because riders will look for that extra protection. It will give them the confidence to progress.

Strider racing, mini motocross events… There is lots happening in the children's end of power and bicycle competition. What can be done to better protect children?

The most important concern of a parent is to keep their child safe. Therefore, protection is an obvious solution to do so. In a time where information is at our fingertips, parents should educate themselves on what proper protection is. We take protection for junior riders very seriously and continue to invest in developing products for children, this is a challenge as when impact protection is added to a product the weight and breathability is effected significantly, with a child in such a small and fragile frame this can then lead to exhaustion, which should be avoided being one of the biggest causes of accidents.

In 2014 we introduced the Fusion 2.0 neck vest, a product that combines neck, chest, back and shoulder protection for children that is an acceptable weight. These are very popular with parents and can be used for junior riders from as small as 100cm tall. We also offer many other products such as elbow and knee protection for children of this size.

Do you anticipate consensus in helmet and safety testing standards? What is missing from the equation?

I believe there is more conversation today in the industry than there was a decade ago about various safety standards for our sport. The improvement of helmet standards (there is a new proposed FIM standard in development), the development of more EU apparel safety standards and discussion around a neck brace test standard are all positive signs for us. The adoption of standards and an outcomes-based approach to safety equipment would presumably make adoption of new standards easier for homologation and sporting bodies.

Do you anticipate a breakthrough in materials that might revolutionize the protection industry? If you could invent one, what would its properties be like?

As the field of biomechanics is so vast and complex, numerous iterative changes to material and designs will probably be the way the industry improves its offering. At LEATT we are constantly striving to find and develop the best materials possible for our various applications. We are also constantly innovating and testing new ideas – from small iterative improvements to radical new ideas. My new material would therefore ideally have properties to allow for radical innovation to offer a better protective product for our sporting applications, were usability and ultimate protection are enhanced. Materials like shear thickening (getting stiffer the harder you hit them) are an example of this sort of material innovation.


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