We at Catchfence.com have always been extremely interested in racing safety and have worked to present innovation and technology to that end.
As any fan of this sport, we each have, over the years, been so saddened by the lost of racers to crash related injuries that were once thought to be acceptable risks by the racers, the fans and the general public. Yet, after each death racing continued. It was business as usual.
2000 and 2001 were especially devastating years to stock car racing with the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper, Blaise Alexander and Dale Earnhardt, to name the most well known. high profile drivers killed in racing accidents. Following Dale’s death racing safety, especially anything to do with basilar skull fracture, found space in the headlines of every racing publication. Suddenly head and neck restraint systems were solidly proven to help make that particular injury survivable even though at least one such device had been crash tested, personally, by it’s inventor George White in 1980 when he drove a Cadillac head on into a concrete wall while wearing his device. George survived, but, the racing community was slow to accept something new and out of their “ordinary”. Today SFI 38.1 certified head and neck restraints are now mandated by NASCAR and many other sanctioning bodies.
In November of 2005 I interviewed the creator of www.headrestraint.org, Kirk Knestis, an amateur road racer and rallyist, who holds a PHD in Education, Policy and Evaluation. Kirk’s primary work was to evaluate programs and policies in education, specifically where technology is used in classrooms to determine if these programs are accomplishing their intended purposes. Because of the nature of his work, Kirk tends to view all sorts of areas in that analytical way, not only to evaluate, but, to determine if improvements can be made and where. Racing safety for him was viewed the same way. Thus began headrestraint.org which was intended to be an informative website where not only the names of various head and neck restraints could be found, but, test data and pricing, as well. This would allow racers from all venues, especially those without mandates, to make informed decisions about which device would best suit their individual needs. For whatever reason, the web site and the idea never took hold with most of the manufacturers. The concept of available data on a wide variety of racing safety products, however, did become quite popular within various racing series, their drivers, etc. “Racing Safety Institute” was born.
I recently contacted the site with questions for this article. The following is their response.
Q: What is the Racing Safety Institute?
A: The Racing Safety Institute (RSI) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing the racing community with information about the performance of racing safety products.
Q: Why and when was this web site developed?
A: It began in late 2004 with sanctioning bodies expressing an interest in a more efficient way of bringing safety developments to racers. The web site was published in 2007.
Q: What type of racing safety product information are available at RSI?
A: It includes performance measures for product categories, and test results for specific products. Presently, the categories include:
Fire suppression systems
Head and Neck Restraints
Any product that protects the racer is a candidate. Some categories have little data presently, but that is changing over time. In the case of helmets a reference link is provided to the Snell web site www.smf.org. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Q:Why is this information important?
A: Because racers and sanctioning bodies can see how well products work. Previous alternatives only provided pass/fail information. Racers are competitive and always strive for improvement. When did one ever say, “My car is fast enough.”? Looking at the RSI website is like looking at the qualifying times for racers; you can see how everyone compares.
Q: Who benefits from this information?
A: Racers benefit because they know what they are buying. Sanctioning bodies also benefit because they can use RSI as an alternative to other certifications which may be less appropriate for their racing environment. It’s simply another way to ensure racer safety.
Q: Why did people believe more efficiency was needed?
A: Because it was taking too long for new ideas to be recognized and made available to racers. This had been the case for some time, but Earnhardt’s death underlined the problem.
Q: How so?
A: Head and neck restraints, which probably would have saved him, had been proved capable of reducing head loads for over twenty years, with multiple scientific papers published in the 1990’s. Yet it took almost four years after his death for a specification to be written for those products, so from 2001 through most of 2004 there were no certified products available. During that time dozens of racers died of head and neck injuries. Had RSI been around, racers could have had access to certified products and performance test results almost immediately. NASCAR could have said, “We need to do something about this,” and contacted RSI which, after confirming test results in scientific papers, could have authorized certification labels.
Q: Is there a specific criteria or standard necessary for product listing at RSI and what is it?
A: All products can be listed. However, manufacturers may use the certification label only if they meet industry performance standards.
Q: Are there any exceptions?
A: Only one: If a product category is so new that there are no performance standards the certification label may be used. This supports safety innovation as it provides the manufacturer a place to show their wares.
Q: Has that ever happened?
A: It’s happening right now with leg injuries. John Force, the winningest Funny Car driver in drag racing history, suffered leg injuries in a crash last year. If John were to invent a leg protection gizmo and demonstrate that it helps protect drivers’ legs, he could get an RSI certification as soon as RSI confirms the test results.
Q: Is there a performance or construction certification process involved with product listing? If so how does it differ from current industry standards of performance and construction?
A: There is a performance certification process only, no construction certification process. Design is not an issue. In fact, limiting design limits innovation which limits safety. That’s an important point. For example, if the UL had been around when Edison invented the bulb, and specified design (a filament in a glass bulb) as part of their certification, we wouldn’t have the wide range of lighting products (HID, LED, etc) that we have today . A manufacturer who already has a certification could invest in a better product yet end up with the same certification they now have, so why invest in the R&D?
Q: How does RSI differ from SFI or FIA?
A: In two ways. First, SFI is a trade association which produces specifications written by manufacturers who are members. RSI, on the other hand, requires no membership and simply presents verified performance test data from independent laboratories. It does not write specifications. In other words, racers provide the direction for RSI, not manufacturers. Second, SFI sets only a minimum standard and does not disclose how well individual products perform, while RSI reports specific product test results. Also, there is no membership in RSI so no money changes hands. All funding is from donations, but manufacturers may not donate.
Q: How does listing a product benefit the manufacturers?
A: It gives the manufacturers a place to prove how good they are. It also gives the racers a place to find those manufacturers, and when the two meet everyone is better off.
Q: Will John Q. Public be able to understand/interpret the technical information found at RSI?
A: Yes. All the test results are summarized, so there is no need to wade through mountains of data.
Q: Confusion, in my opinion, exists within the racing safety community as to one product versus another. How can this website ease that confusion?
A: By giving the community a place to see how well those products perform in a side-by-side test environment. RSI is the only place where product performance can be demonstrated and products can be certified. Those are the principle needs of racers and sanctioning bodies, respectively.
Q: Why would a manufacturer choose not to offer product information with RSI?
A: Only if performance were not a purchase criteria for their customers. Some race settings can be relatively low risk, so that does happen.
www.racingsafetyinstitute.org is still under construction with new products and information being added as it becomes available, so, be sure to visit their website again and again. See for yourself how each device listed performs. This allows you to make a decision based on your personal needs.
Note: The harness section of the website offers links to some manufacterer’s website with test videos.