by Deanna Power
Skiing is an exhilarating sport and a popular recreational activity for tens of millions of Americans. In fact, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), more than 51 million people of all ages and skill levels participate in skiing and snowboarding activities in the U.S. every year.
Like all sports however, skiing carries certain inherent risks, and every person that hits the slopes must weigh those risks, consider the benefits, and make informed choices. Just one of those choices is whether or not to wear a helmet.
Helmets are not required at most resorts or ski areas and only New Jersey currently has a law governing their use for children. Despite lacking regulatory oversight however, ski safety experts, neurosurgeons and other trauma specialists, and the National Safety Council (NSC) all recommend every person wears a proper helmet when skiing.
The Evidence Supporting Helmet Effectiveness
According to studies conducted and/or reported by the NSAA, injuries at resorts and other ski areas have remained steady over the last decade or so. Between 2003 and 2013, fatalities from skiing and snowboarding accidents averaged 41.5 per year. Serious injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and other serious head traumas also remained steady, at a rate of about 44.7 per year.
These figures may at first make it appear that helmets aren’t having a significant effect on skier safety, but nothing could be further from the true. In fact, there is an ever-growing body of evidence showing helmets do reduce the risks of minor and major head injuries for skiers and snowboarders. More and more people participate in ski sports every year, and yet the number of injuries, particularly serious ones, hasn’t increased.
Helmet use during the same period rose significantly as well, with more than 67 percent of adults and 90 percent of children always wearing a helmet, according to NSAA. This in turn tells us that helmets are protecting many skiers that might otherwise suffer an injury.
The Pros and Cons of Helmet Use
You’ll find some strong opinions on both sides of the helmet argument. You’ll also find statistics and studies are often cited to establish these arguments, but statistics alone don’t tell the whole story.
In 2013 for example, the New York Times published an often-cited article regarding the ineffectiveness of ski helmets in preventing traumatic brain injuries. Although it’s true that a helmet can’t stop a severe trauma sustained in a high-velocity impact accident, they do prevent many other minor and serious injuries every day.
There are numerous reasons to choose to wear a helmet. For instance, wearing a helmet reduces your risks of skull fracture by more than 30 percent, according to a 2011 study published by News Medical journal. This same study also notes helmet use decreases skier chances of a more severe and potentially fatal, depressed skull fracture by 60 percent.
Helmet use also prevents everyday injuries like bumps, bruises, scrapes, and cuts. These kinds of injuries, while not life threatening, can significantly affect your enjoyment of the sport. Donning a helmet lets you enjoy yourself with fewer everyday safety concerns. And if you’re a parent, you can rest a little easier, knowing your child’s injury risks are greatly reduced with a properly designed and fitted helmet.
On the flip side of the ski helmet argument, you’ll find many people voicing concerns about helmets affecting skier vision and reaction time. Some also express worries that skiers may expect helmets to provide unrealistic levels of protection and may therefore disregard other safety practices.
Johns Hopkins University and others have completed studies to test helmet affects on vision and reaction time. These studies consistently show helmets don’t compromise a skier’s ability to see clearly and react quickly, both crucial to ensuring on-slope safety.
With regard to skiers disregarding other safety measures, these arguments really don’t hold water according to Dr. Jasper Shealy who has been studying ski safety for more than four decades.
According to Shealy, serious accidents are the most likely to occur with younger males, who are greater risk-takers in general. These same individuals are also more likely to frequent ski areas designed for experts in both skiing and ski safety. Shealy and other experts caution skiers to wear a helmet but to ski as if they aren’t wearing one. In other words, skiers should never lose sight of other safety practices.
Choosing to Keep Yourself Safe
Although ski helmets can’t stop all injuries, they have drastically reduced the number of minor head traumas reported in ski areas across the nation. According to Dr. Shealy in a 2014 interview with National Public Radio, helmets may also be starting to have an effect on the number of severe head traumas, which he believes is due at least in part to the increased use of helmets by younger men.
Given all the evidence in favor of helmet use and the fact that helmets don’t decrease vision or reaction time, it’s surprising that 100 percent of skiers aren’t yet convinced. A helmet is an essential piece of ski safety gear.
*This article was not written by a legal professional, and it is still legal to ride without a helmet. Just keep in mind that if you choose to wear a helmet, you may be saving lives!