The Leatt Brace – Vital Neck Protection for Kart Racers
However, in the lower ranks of racing, namely karting, the HANS device is not an option for drivers. It also is designed only for protection along one axis. Furthermore, it seems especially important to protect the junior drivers in our sport in a form of racing that really offers little to no protection to the driver other than what they wear on their person. The risks to young drivers are also amplified by the relative size of the neck of a child to the size and weight of the typical helmet, making a neck injury even more likely.
Dr. Leatt recognized this need and set upon a several year design and development quest to create a protective brace for not only kart racers, but also motocross and other types of racing that really needed a solution.
After a great deal of research and testing, the Leatt Brace was created and launched in 2007. It seems to have slowly started to catch-on in karting, but it is our feeling that this should be on every single kart racer in the world. It should be as mandatory as the helmet itself.
The initial brace is designed for unharnessed forms of racing, but Leatt also has a model for harnessed racing, as long as the seating position is upright, such as in saloon or stock cars.
We had a chance to sit down and talk personally with Dr. Leatt, and talk about the device, how it came to be, and plans for the future.
Tell us a little about how you came about inventing this device.
“I was not competing at that particular event, but I was there talking to one of the paramedics that was working the event, and my young son was also there. And, we essentially went up to try to resuscitate him and were unsuccessful. We later did the autopsy and discovered that he had broken his neck.”
"It occurred to me that there was a lot of protective equipment on the market, some of which was researched, but certainly nothing covering the neck, at least not adequately. And that is where this all started for me."
"I spent about five years looking at it more from the medical side and the mechanisms of the injury vectors; what makes you break your neck, and the incidents in mostly road accidents and more specifically racing accidents, four-wheel and two-wheel."
"Subsequently, we accumulated more research data, but at that stage it was more of an academic exercise. And then we later produced the prototypes and tested them on test dummies. We were trying to solve a problem, but were not really contemplating producing a product. I was specializing in neurosurgery at the time."
"But the feedback I got was so good that I ended up resigning from my post and taking on the venture full time. And now we have full-time bio mechanical engineers that work with me full-time on understanding the impact dynamics and working on product design and not just on neck protection, but also other fields too."
"That is correct, yes."
What were your biggest challenges and how long did it take you to come up with this product?
"Yes, it was about a 5 year process from the time I started doing the research to having a good working prototype. Obviously I was working at the time and I wasn’t, in the first few years, working full-time on the product yet, but the last three year of that five year period was full-time. When it comes to producing a product that is biomechanically designed to prevent humans from a specific injury, you have to be careful that you won’t be creating another injury."
How did you find the product. Is this privately funded? I would imagine that people buying this would want to be assured that it around for a while and will continue to be available, as well as continued support and development.
"It is publicly funded, although were essentially as a venture capital company in the beginning. After our first sale, we have been profitable enough to acquire additionally funding. We do trade on the pink sheets, which is a public exchange here in South Africa, and we have well over one thousand shareholders."
Getting back to my previous question…what would you say your biggest challenge was in the actual design process?
"I think the design rationale was relatively simple, and that was…there are only a limited number of ways and combination of forces that can produce a clinical neck injury. These are compression, and tension-flexion extension, and sometimes a rotational component. But really, it is the combination of those forces that produces the injury. So understanding how injury occurs was relatively simple. The problem is, that there is really not a lot of authorities that look at standards and desirable outcomes for neck protective devices."
"There is also not a lot of information published by racing authorities around the world. They seem to be a bit hesitant to publish injury data of this nature. And also the test modalities for a product like this, you need to be able to prove that it works, also were not very well established. So we probably spent more time understanding how to test it and prove that it works, than the actual design and original concept itself.
Your product was being developed right about the same time as the HANS device then, wasn’t it?
"Well, the HANS device really started a long time before us, and we have sold many multiples the number of devices they have. They have been around for a long time. In fact, when I started to design this product I did not have any particular knowledge of the HANS device, especially when I was working in the unrestrained-torso motorcycle arena."
"When we started looking at automotive racing and restrained forces, where you have a safety harness and the torso is restrained in the seat. At that point we became aware of the HANS device."
"But I believe that if you wrote a long list of desirables for a neck protection device, be it from simple and easy to use, to protecting in 360 degrees of impact, and after the primary impact, and not requiring massive equipment and seat modifications. In a lot of the racing formulas around the world, the head and neck restraint system is equal to the rest of the year’s racing budget. So we obviously understand the HANS device and we have tested it, and we believe that this device is a better way to approaching the problem."
So that would be a “yes”
"So really, if you have something like this available, why wouldn’t you protect your child?
We want to put this safety device on as many people, and save as many lives as we can."
Leatt sent us the karting version of their unit to test for ourselves, and we headed to the local kart track here in Orlando, Orlando Kart Center to give it a go.
I did notice that the unit does obscure sponsor branding or embroidering on the chest and back of a karting suit. When ordering a custom suit, just move the embroidering a bit lower on the chest and back. However, as this might position the logo below the seat back on many karts, I would recommend that suit designers create a pocket for the thoracic portion of the brace in the back, and a Velcro flap in the front so that the embroidering and fabric can lay over the brace.
Donning the brace took a couple of minutes of practice to do without fumbling. First you put on your helmet and secure the chin strap. Then you unclip one side of the device and slide it around your neck and secure the clip. This can be a little tricky to get the hook inserted into the slot of the front half, and get the clip secured. I would recommend asking someone to take a look and check it before jumping on your kart or bike, just to make sure.
Once the brace is on, unless you are a severe “head leaner” (ala Jean Alesi) then you won’t even notice the device is on until someone gives you a sturdy shunt. It has no effect on head rotation at all, and is very comfortable in the upright seating position of sprint karts. Lay-down karts (such as superkarts or speedway karts) would not be compatible with this brace however, as the chest plate and thoracic plate would not allow for a reclined seating position.
I ran about 50 laps on a very twisty kart track and never even noticed it was on. So there really isn’t any excuse for not having one; especially when the price is under $400, which is less than many helmets.
I wore the brace about a week later in a league race at orlando kartcenter During qualifying, I went inside a slower kart that closed the door on me, saw me at the last second and spun. I spun to avoid a collision. As the kart swapped ends, another kart came around the bend and promptly nosed right into me head-on. Now, it was a pretty decent shunt, but I doubt anything that might have injured me. I might have had a sore neck. However, I could feel the brace stop the forward motion of my helmet quite obviously. It was very reassuring.
Especially as the current foam neck braces have been proven to be statistically insignificant in a crash, and because we want to see our hot young talent make it to the top of the sport, I am personally calling for all karting bodies and tracks to implement a policy of requiring this brace for every racer.
Just take one look at this video (http://www.vitalmx.com/videos/features/Swaps-Crash,2983/Swaps-Crash,419/GuyB,64 ), and if you are not convinced, you don’t need a helmet, because your head is already so damaged it really isn’t necessary.
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