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posted: 12/14/2000

Is wearing a ski helmet a no-brainer? The answer is...it depends. As the issue of ski safety as a whole has garnered increased attention in the past few years (spurred on, in part, by the on-slope deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy), much of the focus has gone to our heads. In the aftermath of a skiing fatality, the resulting news account will often emphasize that the victim was not wearing a helmet. Before you interpret that as unequivocal proof that a so-called brain bucket will keep you safe on the slopes, however, consider some evidence. Whether or not the victim was wearing a helmet is known for about half of the skier deaths that occurred during the 1998-99 season (the last season for which statistics have been analyzed). Of that group, 35 percent were wearing helmets when they died.

Few would argue that wearing a helmet is a bad idea, but it's also important to understand that a helmet is not a safety guarantee either. One of the most vocal cautionaries regarding helmet use is Jasper Shealy, head of the department of industrial manufacturing engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who has conducted ongoing studies of ski injuries for almost three decades. Shealy's work shows that 60 percent of fatal ski injuries involved the head, and almost all of these seemed to be direct impacts (where the head strikes an object and comes to an instantaneous stop, as opposed to a glancing blow). That might seem like reason enough to don a helmet. But not necessarily. Based on his analysis of testing standards, Shealy claims that a helmet will not protect a skier who's going faster than 12 to 15 miles per hour when a direct-impact collision occurs. When you look at the statistics¿90 percent of skier deaths occurred on intermediate terrain, where a typical skiing speed is between 25 and 40 miles per hour¿a helmet no longer seems like a sure safety bet. "If you encounter a tree or a lift tower at those velocities, it will not make a difference whether you're wearing a helmet or not," says Shealy.

Okay, so what about ski racers? Surely there's a reason they've been wearing helmets for years, and downhillers, for example, commonly reach speeds of 80 miles per hour. Shealy counters by pointing out that racing occurs under very controlled conditions, and it's rare for a racer to hit something directly without being slowed down or stopped by a barrier or a net. And of course, the mere possibility of even a glancing blow at 80 miles per hour can warrant the helmets that racers wear.

Regardless, ski helmets have attracted a strong group of advocates who are convinced they do make a difference. The most popular arguments point to published studies and articles indicating the effectiveness of bike helmets, including direct-impact injuries.

"We don't have the definitive research article to show that ski helmets are effective, although we do have it with other helmet use," says Dr. Jeffrey Brown, director of general pediatrics at Denver Health who has reviewed ski-injury data. "Intuitively, our thought is that they are protective."

Marc P. Hauser, president of MPH Associates, the distributor for Boeri helmets, likens wearing a helmet to being "well equipped for whatever you're going to encounter, like having sharp instead of dull ski edges on hardpack." He also brings up the most readily tangible benefits of helmets, namely protection from cold and/or wet weather, which in turn, he believes, allows skiers to focus on their own performance.

Racers and freeskiers are required to wear helmets when competing, but do they choose to when they're out skiing recreationally? "I try to wear a helmet as much as I can when I go skiing," asserts two-time International Free Skiers Association world champ Chris Davenport. "It should be something everybody does."

Former pro racer and 24 Hours of Aspen winner Kate McBride suffered two broken bones in her head, temporary paralysis of the left side of her face, andd permanent blindness in her left eye and deafness in her left ear after getting hit from behind by another skier during an instructors' clinic two years ago. Though she can't say with certainty that a helmet would have prevented, or at least reduced the severity of, those injuries, the incident served as an intense wake-up call. "The interesting thing is that for all of my sports¿downhill racing, slalom racing¿I always wore a helmet, but I never wore it freeskiing," she relates. "But now I wear a helmet almost all the time I ski. It's amazing how fragile our heads really are."

The crux of Shealy's skepticism about helmet use is a psychological phenomenon known as risk homeostasis, or offsetting behavior¿the idea that even a small measure of protection will provoke people into taking more risks. And he has a slew of examples: After helmets were mandated in professional hockey, the number of catastrophic injuries increased; needle pricks among medical practitioners became more common after they started to wear rubber gloves; cars with antilock brakes are in more accidents than those without. Think of it as the SUV-in-a-ditch syndrome, that is, a safety measure that can breed an impression of (false) invincibility. And considering that most estimates say that no more than five percent of skiers at large wear helmets, Shealy's statistic indicating the high percentage of skiers who died with helmets on may further support the notion of offsetting behavior. Of course, it could also be interpreted to suggest that skiers who are already high-risk are more likely to use helmets than more cautious skiers.

"If you're willing to assume that the use of a helmet will in no way alter the behavior of the wearer, it will do an adequate job of reducing moderate to mild concussions," Shealy's willing to concede. But he doesn't have a lot of confidence in our ability to combat offsetting behavior. "People are always looking for a panacea," he says. "The answer to increasing the margin of safety is: Don't go skiing in the trees. Not to wear a helmet and then go skiing in the trees."

Hauser, however, brings up the analogy of seatbelt use to counter the influence of offsetting behavior. "You don't always drive to the maximum capability of your vehicle just because you get in and put on your seatbelt," he points out.

In the end, whether or not to wear a helmet depends on your own personal risk analysis. Do you feel comfortable navigating crowds or gnarly terrain bareheaded? Or are you the type to arm yourself with the best protection available? If you want to make a helmet part of your everyday ski gear, by all means do so. Just don't take it as a license to thrill.

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