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Automotive crash dummy tests show claims that new softer
baseballs prevent injury to be exaggerated

Softer baseballs, a new "safety" product promoted by manufacturers as substantially reducing; the risks of head injury for children who play baseball, actually provide only modest protection, according to a study reported in the October issue of Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. Using crash dummies developed by the automotive industry to assess safety in auto accidents, researchers at the Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine, Ann Arbor, Michigan, tested the risk of head injury from a hard baseball and nine types of softer baseballs thrown at 60 miles per hour, a typical speed in Little League. One of the test series showed that an unprotected, nonhelmeted player hit in the head with a standard hard baseball has a 20 percent risk of serious head injury, and that this risk only falls to 12-l6 percent when hit with a softer baseball. Manufacturers had claimed that the risk of head injury from a standard hard baseball thrown at 60 miles per hour was 80 to 90 percent and that this risk falls to about 1 percent when hit with a softer baseball.

David C. Viano, Ph.D., principal investigator in the study, warned that while the test results show softer baseballs provide a reduction in risk of injury, a softer baseball thrown at 60 miles per hour still has a force of impact of over 1,000 pounds. "I wouldn't want any child to feel it's safe to be hit in the head with any of the softer baseballs," he said. "Rather than using softer baseballs, I would advocate more use of batting helmets. They provide substantially more protection from head injuries. Softer baseballs should not be seen as a substitute for batting helmets."

A Consumer Products Safety Commission report found that between 1973 and 1983, 12 children died after being hit in the head with a baseball . Another 21 died after being hit in the chest. (A previous Institute study using crash dummies found that chest protectors and softer baseballs essentially provide no protection against death from chest impact. Clin Jrnl of Sports Medicine2:172-179,1992.)

Manufacturers' claims were based on a test developed to evaluate the safety of baseball helmets. According to Doctor Viano, these tests do not use the most advanced test dummies, fail to provide a realistic response to impact and may not be appropriate for judging impact to nonhelmeted children. He noted that a realistic test must take into consideration that the head, neck, and whole body move in response to the energy of the ball when it hits and rebounds off the head. The automotive crash dummy used in the Institute's study, a state-of-the-art Hybrid III 5th percentile female dummy, is similar in size to a ten-year-old child and more closely mimics the actual response of a child "We use the most advanced test tool in the world for assessing human response," said Dr. Viano. "The Hybrid III dummies measure more factors and more closely mimic the head and neck responses and whole body responses of humans than other approaches."

David H. Janda, M.D., Director of the Institute and co-author of the study, said that the current study shows the value of independent review and broad evaluation of standards for certification of sports equipment, rather than relying on manufacturer adopted standards and advertising claims. "We owe it to the public to provide, independent, scientific data so that parents and coaches can decide what is safe and what isn't safe, rather than rely on claims unsubstantiated by peer-reviewed research," he said. He added that injury is the most under-recognized, major health problem. facing the nation today. "Th e vast majority of injuries can be prevented and health policy makers should recognize that preventing these injuries is one of the most effective ways of cutting health care costs."


Injuries constitute an enormous public health problem that continues to use up our limited health care resources. The following statistics demonstrate the depth of the problem.

  • Injuries kill more than 142,000 Americans each year and result in more than 62 million persons requiring medical attention annually.
  • Injuries of individuals ages 1-44 cost the nation approximately $133 billion each year.
  • Accidental injury remains the leading cause of death in youth and sports injuries constitute an important number of these.
  • The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has reported that as many as five million medically treated injuries occur in the fifteen most popular sports each year.
  • Softball and baseball combined lead to more emergency room visits in the United States than any other sports.
  • Almost 20 million children participate in youth baseball in the United States annually.
  • Between 1983 and 1989, the Consumer Product Safety Commission documented 2,665,404 injuries treated at emergency rooms due to baseball/softball. This does not include non-hospitalization physician visits and thus underestimates the number of children injured.
  • A 1981 CPSC study of sports injuries to children between the age of 5 and 14 found more deaths in this age group due to baseball than any other sport. From 1973 to 1983, the CPSC reported 51 baseball-related deaths in children, including 12 children hit in the head with the ball and 21 children hit in the chest.

Copyright 2001 The Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine. All rights reserved.