Athletic Management, 14.6, October/November 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1406/bbpolevault.htm
Following the deaths of three pole vaulters last season, both the NFHS and NCAA have adopted new rules designed to improve participant safety in the event. And while coaches are obviously in support of efforts to improve safety, they are a little concerned that the new rules might result in fewer schools competing in the event.
During its June meeting in Indianapolis, the NFHS Track and Field Rules Committee voted to increase the size of the pole vault landing pit to a minimum of 19-feet, eight-inches wide by 16-feet, five-inches long. The previous rule was 16-feet, six-inches wide and 12-feet long.
According to the new rules, which took effect immediately after passage, the pit should be made of material “that will decelerate the landing of the athlete.” And if the pit consists of two or more sections, the landing surface must be covered by a common cover.
The NCAA has also changed its rules, effective with the start of the 2002-03 indoor season, to require the same size landing pit as the NFHS. In addition, the NCAA rules require the landing pad to extend at least six feet forward from the vault box at the same 19’8” width as behind the box. They also call for a padded collar, two to four inches in thickness, to cover any area surrounding the vault box that is not covered by the landing pad.
The NCAA also made padding around the base of the standards that hold the cross bar mandatory. This padding had previously been recommended, but not required.
Both groups said the rule changes were made to reduce the chance of injury by providing vaulters with a wider margin of error when they land. “Coaches recognize the need is out there to make the landing area bigger,” says Jim Lonergan, Assistant Track and Field Coach at Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Ill., and founder of the Illinois Pole Vault Coaches Association. “If a rule change has to be made to raise awareness and get everybody to comply, let’s go for it.”
This is not the first time the NFHS has changed its rules in order to make pole vaulting safer. Prior to the 1995 season, the group required all areas surrounding the landing pit to be covered with padding. In addition, rules were implemented that required poles to be rated by the allowable weight of the vaulter, and vaulters were prohibited from holding the pole above a line determined by the manufacturer.
The number of serious pole vault injuries dropped after the 1995 changes. Jan Johnson, Chairman of the USA Track and Field’s Pole Vault Safety Committee, told the Los Angeles Times that they would have all but disappeared had everyone followed them.
“Of the nine catastrophic injuries that occurred [from 1995-2001] all came at facilities that were out of compliance [with the 1995 standards],” he said. “And all of the catastrophic injuries that occurred in the seven years before, every one of them came at facilities that would not have met the  standards.”
“That’s a real issue and something coaches are upset about,” Lonergan says. “We’ve had a number of kids who have been hurt and killed because someone wasn’t following the rules.”
The cost for upgrading the landing pits can run as high as $8,000 to $10,000 for schools that have to buy new equipment. Many schools, however, may be able to meet the new standards by augmenting their existing equipment for as little as $700 to $800.
“I know many of the manufacturers are doing what they can so people can take existing landing systems and customize those pits to be in compliance,” Lonergan says. “Those companies want to keep the cost as low as possible because they know what the alternative is.”
That would be dropping the event entirely. While Lonergan has not yet heard of any schools dropping pole vault because of the new rules, he thinks it’s just a matter of time.
“Athletic directors are more concerned about budgets than individual coaches are,” he says. “They may look at the line item for pole vault and say, ‘We’re not doing that event. It’s just too expensive.’
“But if treated properly, that equipment will last a long time,” Lonergan continues. “So if athletic directors can take a step back, they would see that these are not annual expenses, and the cost is usually pretty small.”
To help ensure that facilities meet the new rules, the NFHS also added a rule that gives the referee the ability to cancel an event if the facility does not meet standards. “It’s a tough thing for one coach to go to another and say, ‘You have inadequate facilities, and they’re unsafe,’” Lonergan says.
But the best time to handle such a decision is well beforehand, so Lonergan suggests that athletic directors discuss the new rules at conference meetings. They should also talk with their track coaches as soon as possible about the rules changes.
“The athletic director should ask, ‘Are we in compliance, and if not, what are we going to have to do?’” he says. “And a couple of weeks before an away meet, the athletic director might want to suggest to the track and field coach that he or she call the opposing coach to find out about the pits. That way, if there is a problem, there’s time to get the athletic directors involved and maybe solve the problem on a more friendly level.”
There has also been discussion of other rules changes, including requiring vaulters to use helmets. Some vaulters are voluntarily using helmets, and they are required of high school vaulters in Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. (Two states, Iowa and Alaska, do not sanction pole vault competition.) In addition, there is a bill pending in the New York State legislature that would make helmets mandatory in the state for both college and high school pole vaulters.
“I think that a few years ago, people felt that helmets might be the answer,” Lonergan says. “But there are still many issues out there surrounding helmets, not the least of which being that there isn’t a manufacturer willing to test and make one specifically for pole vault.”
Last season, at Idaho State University, Head Track and Field Coach Dave Nielsen required his vaulters to wear skateboarding helmets with mixed results. He found that, “if someone flipped over a little bit more on their shoulder the helmet could exacerbate the hyperflexion of the neck.”
As a result, Nielsen will provide helmets to any of his vaulters who want to use them this season, but he will not require their use. “I don’t think helmets are the full answer, especially since the helmets aren’t designed for pole vault,” he says. “If you’re going to go that route, you need to have something that is actually designed for the sport, which is under study right now.”
In addition to the new NCAA rules, the Big Ten Conference has also adopted several other new rules for its member schools. One mandates that Big Ten pole vaulters annually review and sign a document that outlines the pros and cons of wearing a helmet. Another requires an 8-by-10-foot “preferred landing zone” be marked on the landing pad as a guide for safe landings.
The Big Ten rules also reach beyond the competition site by requiring coaches and athletes to attend an annual on-campus vaulting safety clinic. Each Big Ten school is also required to hold a pole vaulting clinic for high school and junior high school track and field coaches.
“I applaud the Big Ten,” Nielsen says. “I think they are going the right way with this. They were unfortunate witnesses to a horrendous accident [the death of vaulter Kevin Dare during the Big Ten Indoor Championship in February], and I think they are making a move in a positive direction.”