Helmet Safety: How Important?

Posted By: The Ski Channel on March 19, 2009 12:00 pm

It’s on everyone’s mind these days, and if you’re a skier, it should be on your noggin. Helmet safety. And how important is it?

The surprising fact about Natasha Richardson’s tragic brain injury is that in her case, a helmet may not have helped her. Can helmets help save lives, though? Yes! Do they add a protective measure while skiing? Heck yeah. But it really comes down to what kind of helmet you wear, and the nature of your accident.

According to statistics from the National Ski Areas Association, during the 2007/2008 season approximately 43 percent of skiers and snowboarders wore helmets, and helmet use has been increasing four to five percent each year. Yet in spite of the greater number of mountain enthusiasts sporting head buckets, the fatality rate of skiing and snowboarding has remained the same. "Helmets can prevent lower-end scale injuries, such as lacerations to the scalp or mild concussions," says Dave Byrd, director of education and risk for the National Ski Areas Association. "But they won’t necessarily always prevent fatalities."

Of course the NSAA recommends wearing a helmet, but behavior and safety are equally as important. "Wear a helmet—but ski as if you’re not wearing one," Byrd says. "Sometimes people put on a helmet and feel like it’s a cloak of invincibility—but that’s not the case."

Most helmets are built to prevent injuries incurred during speeds of up to only 14 miles per hour, while on average, according to Byrd, a typical skier on an intermediate trail is schussing at 25 to 40 miles per hour. Brain injury can occur when your head is moving quickly and then comes to a complete stop when you crash. Even if you have extra protection, your brain can still move in your skull.

Regardless, wearing a helmet can only improve your chances of remaining injury free. So what kind should you get? According to POC, a leading helmet manufacturer and the headwear of choice for 2006 Olympic Gold Medalist, Julia Mancuso, until recently, there have been two main types of helmets on the market. The more traditional versions feature a hard shell and an inner core made from soft, expanded polystyrene (EPS), and provide solid penetration resistance and energy distribution. The problem with the hard shell is that upon impact, the hard structure causes a sudden stop, which can lead to brain damage and/or whiplash.

The second kind of helmets feature an ‘in-mold,’ like those made for cycling. They have a thinner plastic shell on the outside, and the EPS on the inside. These helmets can reduce the acceleration of the brain upon impact and also bounce less during a fall. However, the shells can break more easily and provide less resistance to penetration.

Ideally, you want to find a helmet that melds the two types, so that it’s strong enough to resist penetration, and malleable enough to reduce impact on the brain. Fortunately, manufacturers like POC have been working to provide this type of safety.

It’s important to note, with all of this helmet talk, that skiing is still a relatively safe sport. "On average, there have been 39 fatalities per year over the last decade," says Byrd. "And that shows that skiing is just as safe—or safer—when compared with the fatalities that result from swimming or bicycling."

So encase your noggin, ski or ride smart and continue to enjoy.