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Pole Vault Deaths Spur Safety Concerns

A recent rash of pole vaulter deaths—three within 2 months—has highlighted the dangers of the event and has raised new questions about what can be done to make it safer.

Barry P. Boden, MD, lead author of a 2001 study1 on catastrophic pole vaulting injuries, says that though extremely tragic, the deaths fit patterns identified in the study. "Based on our data, there's usually one death per year," says Boden, an orthopedic surgeon at The Orthopaedic Center in Rockville, Maryland, and an editorial board member of THE PHYSICIAN AND SPORTSMEDICINE. "This is on the high side, but not out of the ordinary," he says.

Tracking the number of pole vaulters is difficult, Boden says, so it's not known if the rash of injuries is coincidental or related to increased participation. However, numbers are thought to be increasing, based on the popularity of extreme sports and the influx of women into pole vaulting. Women now compete in high school and college, and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney marked the first-ever Olympic women's pole vault competition. An American, Stacy Dragila, won the gold medal in the event.

Injury Mechanics

Three mechanisms of injury were described in the 2001 study,1 which examined 32 catastrophic injuries that were recorded by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research between 1982 and 1998. Mechanisms included:

  • Landing with the body on the landing pad with the head striking a hard surface off the pad;
  • Landing in the vault box (where the pole is planted for the vault); and
  • Missing the pad and landing completely on a hard surface.

Of the three recent incidents, two high school boys landed on the mat with their heads striking off the mat, and one male college vaulter landed headfirst in the vault box.

Are Helmets the Answer?

Of the many safety measures that have been suggested since the deaths, helmets seem to have the strongest support among the lay community. Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Minnesota already require helmets for high school pole vaulters, and New York is considering a similar law.2,3

Jan Johnson, a pole vault coach and safety expert with the National Pole Vault Safety Committee in Atascadero, California, is a proponent of helmets; however, he acknowledges their limitations in an article posted on a pole vault Web site.4 He notes that while helmets may greatly reduce the chance of head injury in the three major types of catastrophic accidents listed above, research on standards for a specific pole vault helmet are lacking, and current sports helmets may not provide proper protection. He notes that helmets may give users a false sense of security and should not substitute for proper technique and other safety measures.

Considering the Next Steps

Boden and other pole vault safety experts believe that increasing the landing pad size would help prevent many catastrophic injuries. In 2001, the American Society for Testing and Materials issued new specifications for landing pits that have not yet been adopted by high school and college athletic associations. Strict enforcement of existing rules, such as the 1995 one by the National Federation of State High School Associations requiring that the surfaces adjacent to the landing pits be padded with mats, would also reduce injuries, Boden says.

Another safety measure that has been considered is to post spotters at the vault box. "We're not going to recommend that because vaulters wear spikes and carry long poles—there could be injuries to the spotters," Boden says. Some have suggested that certain practices during warm-up, such as "tapping" (assisting the athlete over the pole to increase spring), should be prohibited. "Artificial devices and/or tapping that help the vaulter during warm-up or practice only give a false sense of ability that can increase the risk of injury," Boden says.

Boden says that perhaps the simplest safety modification would be to delineate a "coach's box" on the landing pad; this would involve spray painting a square on the middle of the landing pad that would give athletes a target to aim for.

The ultimate way to reduce injuries—catastrophic and noncatastrophic—will focus on a combination of safety measures, not simply helmets, Boden says. "Pole vault is a complicated sport. It takes a tremendous amount of practice and has a lot of intricacies."

Lisa Schnirring


  1. Boden BP, Pasquina P, Johnson J, et al: Catastrophic injuries in pole-vaulters. Am J Sports Med 2001;29(1):50-54
  2. Hollobaugh J: Coaches need to get serious about pole vault safety. Available at Accessed April 22, 2002
  3. Goldman T: Pole-vaulting proves lethal to some athletes. Available at Accessed April 26, 2002
  4. Johnson J: Pro and con on the use of helmets in pole vaulting. Accessed April 26, 2002

Field Notes

Softer Impact for Motor Sports

An engineering research team from the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln developed a new energy-absorbing wall that was recently installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The barrier, designed to reduce driver injuries, dissipates impact energy and distributes it over a longer distance of the wall without propelling the car back into high-speed traffic, according to a press release from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Installed at turns, the barrier consists of an outer steel skin formed with steel tubes that are welded together on top of one another to form an impact plate. Behind the steel skin is as much as 14 inches of polystyrene blocks that absorb the impact. Currently, most barriers are made from concrete or other materials such as high-density polyethylene. (The development of the new barrier began before Dale Earnhardt was killed in a wall impact.)

Twenty vehicles were crash tested at the research site, including 12 race cars at speeds of up to 150 mph. The new barrier configuration can be modified between races to accommodate different car styles.

Human Transporters Carry Risks

Pediatric safety experts recently expressed their concerns about injury risks associated with the new Segway Human Transporters (HTs) at a symposium in May at the 2002 Pediatric Academic Societies' annual meeting in Baltimore. They noted that some states, such as New Jersey and New Hampshire, are allowing users of the personal assistive mobility devices to share sidewalks with pedestrians. They also noted that minimum requirements for device operators are lacking.

"Allowing motorized vehicles on the sidewalk will require children to negotiate motorized traffic, which is something they are developmentally incapable of doing," said Gary Smith, MD, DrPH, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, in a hospital press release. "Collision between a Segway HT and a child would be significant enough to cause serious injury." He added the devices have clear advantages; however, legislators should carefully consider safety before they exempt the devices from existing laws that prohibit other motorized vehicles on sidewalks.