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The Leatt Brace – Vital Neck Protection for Kart Racers

by Scott Morris
Monday, January 25, 2010

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A little over a decade ago the HANS device elevated the safety of motorsports to a new level by creating a way to protect the neck from a life-ending spinal trauma. Even so, it was slow to be adopted by a number of top racing series. Still others allowed the use of various other devices that really did not measure up. Today, though there are a number of other very effective devices on the market, the HANS device still seems to be the standard among all race drivers, professional and amateur alike.

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.
“The device initially started off as a motorcycle brace, or the initial research and impetus started off in the motorcycle arena, and in fact the first production brace that we manufactured in South Africa was and automotive brace. Then subsequent to that, we actually launched the MotoGPX motorcycle version. It all started for me, because I have been avid motorsports competitor for a number of years, and started racing when I was sixteen, on the short circuits and motorcycle racing, and I used to also ride off-road to keep fit. And, at one of those events, somebody that rode with, fell and broke his neck and died at a relatively low speed.”

“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."

The Leatt Brace
with Carbon Fiber
thoracic strut

So the “Dr” before your name indicates neurosurgery correct? So, the medical background to this product seems to differentiate it from a lot of the other products that are out there.
"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."

Does your device address certain forces that the HANS device does not?
"Well, the HANS device is designed primarily not to prevent neck injuries, but to prevent basal skull fractures and death. From that perspective, as popularized by Dale Earnhardt’s death in NASCAR, and he had a basal skull fracture, amongst other injuries. It subsequently became apparent that he probably would have died regardless, as his safety harness was not tight and he impacted the dashboard, and other structures. But the HANSA device is designed primarily for that basal skull fracture. Our quest was not to just look at that injury, but the whole neck. In fact, we used to call that top part of the neck cranial cervical junction where the neck joins the skull, as “C-naught” as the part above the level of the cervical spine. But we look at forces on C-7 vertebrae and below as well. So our intention was to prevent more than basal skull fractures."

So that would be a “yes”
"Correct. We seek prevent neck injuries in general, on a more comprehensive level. We are currently working on an update for the MotoGPX line."

What is the unit made from?
"Well it is a combination of glass reinforced nylon, with carbon fiber and Kevlar, and metal hardware clips and parts."

What were the deciding factors in selecting those particular materials? Cost? Effectiveness, or a balance of both?
"You obviously have a lot of considerations in the design process. Being able to manufacture the product is important. But in this case, the behavior of the structure is of key importance. We wanted it to be resilient to a certain point, and fail at a predetermined point, so as not to cause other injuries. That failure point, and the protection of such a failure point is very much in why we chose these particular materials. The glass reinforced nylon we use is specially made for us, and allows us to know at what point the device will fail, and is very important in preventing other injuries."

One of my big question is probably a difficult one. Have you had any actual cases of where you device was being worn and its effectiveness in preventing injury?
"Absolutely. We have a library here, where we catalogue accidents whether there is an injury or not, noting if the device or helmet was damaged, and if the driver is injured. We have an injury assessment, and we try to get the device back or at least get photos of the device after the accident. We do a lot of retrospective analysis of accidents and this is important in understanding our product and making it better."

So is this is a one-impact device, like a helmet would be?
"No. Many devices will survive the impact, and might only need certain parts or components replaced. We recommend that the dealer have a look at it after an impact, as there are fracture points. If those fracture points have not failed, you can continue to use it. Otherwise, those parts must be replaced."

How do you market the device?
"We have spent a lot of time upgrading the business from a manpower perspective, and systems. We have hired some really good people recently. In the USA we have hired a new general manager in the US, as well as a new marketing manager who came from the BMW motorcycle division. Our European side has also had similar development, and we have really overhauled our distribution network, and stepped up our advertising and branding campaign as well. We are ready for the next stage."

What are you doing to lobby the sanctioning and organizational bodies to require your product like they do a helmet or a HANS device? Especially the karting bodies.
"Yes, those little necks have very big helmets in proportion to the size of the child. You have made a very good point there, and it probably the most frustrating part of the job. You know, we have made many trips and lobbied the FIA in Europe, and SFI. The FIA is quite a difficult organization to deal with. These decisions are made by a panel that does not seem to reflect on the reason for adopting a particular product. The karting arm of the FIA, which is basically the CIK in Europe, seems to fall into much the same problem. We are however in the WKA handbook as recommended neck protection, and we are we are working with SFI on the unrestrained model as a standard."

"Around the world, we talk to a lot of individual racing organizations and medical panels. In certain pockets, we have had a lot of success and understanding. But I think it is just a frustrating, long and slow process."

"We try to simply showcase our data and competence, and not hide behind a marketing pitch. The argument for neck protection is simple. To parents out there who are spending an absolute fortune on karting equipment, it is quite a travesty not to spend the same money as a set of tires for a kart, on neck protection that can literally keep your child out of a wheelchair…or worse. We hear and see a lot of karting accidents, and every year there are a number of deaths in karting, mostly from head and neck injuries. Obviously, when a child is small, one of the interesting and concerning aspects is the weight of the helmet on the neck. The helmet basically weighs the same as the adult helmet, on a neck that is half the size. This is certainly a case for neck protection."

"The foam collars incidentally, that seem to be the standard right now, are of no consequence at all in an accident."

"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."


TESTING THE LEATT BRACE

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.

The packing and directions are very clear and easy to read. There is a small amount of assembly required to properly fit the device, but any respectable racer should be able to handle it with no drama whatsoever.

The device is made of a very sturdy ABS plastic with key part of metal and carbon fiber. It essentially is fashioned after a yoke, and is in two parts that are attached via two lever clips.

Though our unit did not come with them, Leatt also offers a variety of “skins” that sport snappy graphics and designs to match your personal style. I quick web search for “custom Leatt Brace graphics” also produced a couple of sources for custom designs.

The Leatt Brace can obscure the logo detail on a driving suit.

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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