Ski helmets: You should wear one

18:16, Aug 18 2014

Recently I skied Porters with my son's school. A group of parents geared up to ski, including Claire, an expert telemarker. Telemark skis, occasionally called "misery sticks" by those in the know, are notoriously tricky to handle and this day was fairly firm.

In these less-than-ideal conditions, Claire took a spill, losing an edge and hitting her forehead on the snow as she slowed down for the T-bar line.

Despite wearing a helmet, she was knocked out for about 30 seconds. Ski patrollers assessed Claire and it was agreed that someone else would drive her down. Further evaluation at the emergency department was also advised.

I rang Claire a few days later and she was still feeling off - tired with foggy moments.

"Write a column about helmets," she urged. The following Monday I put my helmet on - a rare event for me. I never wore a helmet growing up and only now wear a ski helmet if I am to ski something at my limit or if I fear rockfall (ie I wear a helmet with the intention of taking more risk).

I took one run on T-bar one and, hating my helmet, went back to the car to put my hat on. "I haven't crashed in a couple of years, what's the chance of my crashing today," I told myself. The kids skied past, never questioning their helmets. Many adults are the same.


My problem appears to be habit combined with a lack of commitment to finding a helmet that fits. I have a helmet, I try to wear it, I hate it but I'm a cheapskate so I don't buy another one.

It's a consequence versus probability decision: The potential consequence should I hit my head is high, but the probability of hitting my head is low on an average day of skiing. Obviously, my attitude is unjustified - I have an opportunity to reduce risk and don't do it.

I suspect I've had two minor concussions from skiing (both in my teens when no-one wore helmets). A friend who is a 20-year ski patrol veteran in the United States, recently said that helmets had not reduced head- injury deaths in snow sports.

When I sought further information, I found that controversy raged. Some experts stated that wearing a helmet caused snow riders to take greater risks. The greater the risk taken, the greater the impact and potential for helmet capacity to be overwhelmed. Others stressed the importance of the context of the head injury and suggested that helmets did prevent many minor head injuries such as skull lacerations and fractures.

In late 2012, the renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital in the US reviewed 16 published studies on head injuries in recreational skiers and snowboarders. About 10 million Americans ski or snowboard in the US each year with about 600,000 injuries reported annually.

Up to 20 per cent are head injuries and of those, 22 per cent are severe enough to cause concussion or loss of consciousness. Analysis of the 16 published studies found that helmets did save lives. The argument that helmets can exacerbate the likelihood of neck injury, through torque or whiplash, was debunked.

Jasper Shealy is perhaps the most widely published researcher on the subject of helmets and snow-related injuries with an ongoing 30-year study. While about 60 per cent of ski fatalities involve a head injury, Shealy notes that it is important to consider that the head may not be the primary site of trauma in these events.

Shealy found that in the US, helmet use increased from 5 per cent in the 1995-96 season to 76 per cent in the 2009-10 season. He also found that head injuries as a proportion of all injuries decreased by 20 per cent during the same time.

Perhaps the best advice is to ask yourself -when the adrenalin is pumping - if you'd be as engaged if you were not wearing a helmet? If no, perhaps reconsider your speed.

According to researchers, a helmet appears to offer most protection in low speed-impacts - those less than 25kmh - falls like Claire's, in which her head struck the hard snow surface leading to a temporary loss of consciousness. Had Claire not been wearing a helmet, how much worse could her injury have been?

The research is there. While helmet designs cannot protect against fatalities in high-impact collisions and crashes, they do offer significant protection in lower-speed strikes. There's really no excuse.

The Press