Photo: Shay Haas
With the sad news of Natasha Richardson's recent death on the ski slopes, there is now of course much discussion of the Helmet Issue.
Apparently, the general public has pressing questions: could she have survived if she'd been wearing a helmet? Should all people who go skiing wear helmets?
So I read a CNN article which discussed the pro's and con's of wearing helmets while skiing or snowboarding. As it happens, I already have an opinion on the advisability of wearing helmets while skiing, bicycling, skateboarding, motorcycle riding, rock-climbing, or doing any other activity in which a smashed skull is a possibility. And while this article didn't change my mind, I did learn some very interesting things from reading it!
1. Ski Helmets Reduce Brain Injuries by 75%! (Or, They Don't Help at All).
It depends on whom you ask. One expert cited an unpublished study that showed ski helmets reduced the risk of brain injury by 75 percent. Other studies showed reductions of 50 percent to 80 percent.
But another expert who works for the NSAA, "a trade group that represents ski resorts as well as ski gear manufacturers," said that despite increases in helmet use, deaths on the slopes have remained fairly constant. He contends that the use of helmets did not reduce fatalities.
So, um, which is it? (I personally find it hard to believe that helmets wouldn't help at all in reducing fatalities).
2. More People are Wearing Helmets Than I Thought.
According to the NSAA, 43 percent of U.S. skiers and snowboarders were wearing helmets in 2008, up from 25 percent in 2003. Still less than half, but it's a big jump in five years.
3. Ski Slope Deaths Aren't All That Common.
Consider the source on this one, which is the NSAA again (the Ski Industry trade group). But according to them, in 2006 there were 2.07 skiing/snowboarding deaths for every million participants. This is fewer than for bicycling or swimming. They also note that a person is twice as likely to die from being struck by lightning as to die in a skiing or snowboarding accident.
This lightning thing sounds very impressive! That is, until you think about it a little more. Anyone who goes outside can be hit by lightning; but very few people are out skiing at any given time. It appears from the NSAA site that they're comparing total deaths per year from skiing and lightning strikes--which is sort of like comparing apples and oranges, if apples could ski but oranges kept getting hit by lightning. Or something like that.
Anyway, the bottom line is that skiing is not quite as dangerous as it sounds.
4. Helmets Won't Keep You Alive If You Hit Something Hard at High Speed
The NSAA rep said that helmets are most helpful in preventing lesser head injuries, like scalp lacerations or mild concussions. Recreational ski and snowboard helmets are only designed to provide protection at 14 mph or less, whereas most folks ski or snowboard between 25 and 40 mph. "So when you're going at that speed and you hit a fixed object like a tree, whether you're wearing a helmet isn't going to matter." NSAA guy suggests that skiers try not to act like reckless morons just because they are wearing helmets. (Not an exact quote).
Good advice! But, um, rather than just take for granted that recreational helmets aren't designed to do the job, might it not be a good idea to urge manufacturers to make them stronger? Or perhaps we could get recreational users into whatever fancy-ass expensive ski helmet technology is available for professionals, if that's what it takes to protect heads when people go normal skiing speeds. (Note: I'm not a skier, so I have no idea if such high-end technology even exists. But if I were a skier, I'd sure as hell want a helmet designed to actually protect my head).
This Might Not Do The Trick
5. Helmet or No Helmet, Some People are Just Dumb
The CNN article included an interview with a college student and first-time snowboarder about his choosing not to wear a helmet. He had already fallen and hit his head several times.
"That fall you witnessed was actually the first time I cracked the back of my head. Usually it's the front," he says. "Do I regret not wearing one? No, not really. It's not too bad and I know what a concussion feels like, so I know I'm good so far."
Crabby's Thoughts on The Wearing of Helmets
While I don't ski, I do ride a bike. The safety issues are similar, but there has been a bit more research on bike helmet safety--which of course is conflicting. But the vast majority of studies seem to say: wear a helmet, doofus, or you may die of a brain injury.
I think it's smart to wear a helmet and not-so-smart to ride around without one.
There is a great deal of variation in helmet usage. It depends on who you are and where you ride. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute estimates overall that usage rates are no better than 25%; however, white-collar commuters may reach up to 80%. I know that in our little beach town, where road conditions can be dangerous and hordes of wobbly tourists rent bikes during the summer, probably only 5-10% of riders seem to be wearing helmets.
So why do so many people spurn bike helmets even though they save lives?
Well, duh: helmets aren't Cool. Or at least not until we all decide they are.
Most people don't care about statistics. They know there is a "chance" that something bad could happen, and they know they're a lot less likely to end up brain dead if they have a helmet on. But that "chance" seems small enough to ignore.
Who wants to put an unflattering piece of plastic on their head and smoosh down their hair? Plus, helmets are sometimes uncomfortable. (Not nearly as uncomfortable as head trauma, but that's not something anyone wants to dwell on when going for a pleasant ride to the beach).
For most people, the most important consideration when it comes to helmet usage seems to be: what is "everyone else" doing?
In places like Provincetown, only
(Just pretend there is a picture right here of me looking exceedingly attractive while wearing a bike helmet.)
(OK, pretend a little harder...)
However, if cooler people than me were to start wearing helmets, then maybe we could start a movement! Soon we'd all start feeling more like this:
And less like this:
What about you folks, do you wear helmets when skiing, cycling, skating, climbing, or whatever?