Ski Helmets: Should they be mandatory?

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Smith Variant Brim

A few months ago, New Jersey became the first state to mandate ski helmets for children under 18. California is poised to pass a similar law by next winter, and New York appears to be next. After a string of head injury fatalities in Europe in recent years, helmet laws for kids have also passed in the Alps.

Some ski companies, such as Jackson Hole and Mammoth, have even begun requiring certain employees such as Ski Patrol to wear helmets while conducting avalanche control and other skiing activities.

Some industry experts claim that while helmets have not been proven to save lives during serious injuries, they have helped in

Blaine, not wearing a helmet

minor to moderate injuries. In Austria, a collision involving one helmeted skier and one unhelmeted skier resulted in a fatality for the woman not wearing a helmet, but the man wearing one survived. Helmets are known to prevent and reduce skull fractures and internal bleeds.

These are the facts.

It seems that helmet legislation is a no-brainer. Just like seat belts, perhaps we should just make everyone wear one.

However, according to NSAA, ski helmet use is up 131 percent in the past 12 years, bringing the total to 60 percent of all skiers and riders wearing helmets. 91 percent of children under 9 years old already wear them. This is up 4 percent from last year.

With this kind of increase, do we really need the legislation? Helmets are getting lighter, tougher and sexier. Many of the old complaints just don’t apply: my head gets too hot when I wear one (just open the vents and voila!), they’re too heavy (not anymore), I look like a bobble-head (check out Smith Variant Brim), helmets make my goggles fog up (au contraire!)

Ever since I ended up in the emergency room after a collision with a high-speed chairlift (totally my fault!), I started skiing around with my palms over my ears, as if trying to protect my skull. My brains felt loose and vulnerable inside my head. I had received a minor concussion, but still my brain felt cottony and slow. A few days after the accident I switched on the garbage disposal when John’s hand was down in the sink. I wasn’t thinking clearly.

I started wearing a helmet and now wear one almost every day. My goggles never fog, the vents keep me cool on warm days and the insulation keeps me warm on cold days. Helmets make great hats.

But do we need to require that everyone wear one? Do we even need to pass laws for children’s use? If almost every child wears one these days, I’m wondering how necessary the law actually is.

More important, is this trend moving towards requiring adults to wear them? What do you think?

Should we pass a law requiring children to wear a helmet? How about adults? Do you wear one? Why or why not?

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26 responses »

  1. I personally wear one every time. Most of the time I don’t need it but I never know when I’ll get the itch to hit some trees that I don’t know very well. …plus my helmet has built in speakers. Pretty sick. Not sure they should be mandatory. I’m not a big fan of nanny laws when the data isn’t there to support the idea. But as more people start wearing them collisions could become a big factor for the person not wearing one. Helmet to helmet not so bad…helmet to head not so much.

    • A BBC Report investigating skiing injuries concluded that in spite of a huge increase in helmet use by skiers there had been no decrease in head injury’s Only one accident incident occurs in 1000 ski hours and the injury’s are often minor
      .Head injury accounts for 15% of skiing injury’s.
      I do not favor legislative intervention. Skiing is for those of free spirit and who should be free to make their own judgements.
      Health and Safety has gone too far and has caused the most ridicules problems in the day to day world. leave people free choice in their leisure
      Rex Farndon
      Retired Safety consultant

  2. I began wearing a helmet to ski while in my early 60’s after taking a mandatory class while working with Alzheimer patients that taught us blows to the head help contribute to Alzheimers. That was enough for me! Have had enough hard knocks to the head to know I am a prime candidate ( but hope to prove them wrong on that ) and have taken a few hard falls since then while on skis that made me very grateful to be wearing my helmet. Will not ski without it.

    • Madeleine,
      I hadn’t heard that connection with Alzheimers. I can say for myself that with my head injury, I was sure scared to lose even one tiny ounce of cognitive ability. It’s not until you feel so vulnerable that it means so much.

  3. I started wearing a helmet six years ago and do so most of the time. The only time when I do not always wear a helmet is when I am earning my turns in the backcountry. Even then I may be wearing a climbing helmet. I have purchased one for my wife and the kids who were still at home and believe that wearing a helmet it a good thing. I absolutely DO NOT think another law to protect me from myself is needed. I get so annoyed at our law makers thiking that they must continue to pass laws to make every single aspect of our lives subject to their purview. Wearing a helmet is the smart thing to do and every parent should insist that their children wear them, but don’t pass law about this.

  4. We need to teach our kids to use their heads as well as protecting them. skiing is one of the few places we can decide what we use to protect ourselves. Im afraid helmets much like beacons give some folks a false sense of security, with out evidence to support the safety of helmets I think responsible skiing should take precedent and let folks choose for themselves.

    • Thanks for your comment Yap. You are so right. Folks DO need to take responsibility for themselves in the mountains and elsewhere. I suppose if that were already the case, we would even be having this discussion.

  5. I started wearing a ski helmet when I started working in the Trauma and Neuro ICU in Denver. People that had helmets = survived. People that didn’t = not so much. We had this kid who was one of the top skiers in the world, hit a tree going 50+mph, and actually walked out of our unit.

    I would support a law requiring children to wear helmets. We can say that everyone should wear them, but unfortunatlye, some parents are idiots- and don’t do what’s best for their children. Their children shouldn’t have to suffer for their parents idiocy. As for the adults, I don’t really care what they do- but they should be mandated to have health insurance, so when they do get a head injury, we’re not paying for their extensive rehab.

    The things I’ve seen have biased my opinion somewhat… 🙂

    • Suz,
      We share our perspective in that I’ve seen how helmets can make a huge difference in outcome for patients. I agree that children should wear helmets. But even better than a law is the collective wisdom on the slopes these days. Almost all kids already wear them.

  6. Kim
    I don’t wear a helmet and never have. Started skiing at Mt. Spokane in 1961 and never saw a helmet back in those days on the ski slopes, but you never saw a snowboarder either, so times have changed. I think helmets have valid safety features and my kids and grand kids use them which I’m OK with, I just don’t like the government laws telling me I must do this or that or I’ll have to pay a fine or can’t do something I’d like to do. We have enough big brother in our lives don’t you think?

  7. It seems that the North Americans are ahead of the game in terms of ski helmets with Europe flailing behind. However, it’s nice to see the Europeans taking all safety elements seriously considering a busy run in Meribel can be fairly hair-raising! Like Kim, I feel not quite right without my helmet on now and become nervous but until governments implement it everyone has the right to make their own mind up. It is great though to see children growing up used to wearing helmets and without reference to the days of ‘it’s just not cool’!

  8. I gre up in the days of helmets being un-cool. I never wore one. Not on my snowboard, or my skateboard, and only on my bike ’cause my mom made me. As a 30 year old adult now, I wear my helmet every time I ride. Is it necessary every time, probably not. But, I wear it none-the-less. When my little girl finally gets on a board, you better believe she will be wearing a helmet. Thankfully, she will think of it as cool, especially since all of the other kids will have one as well. She will never have to grow up shunning a helmet because it’s un-cool and that makes me a very happy father.

    • Jason,
      I know what you mean. I’m glad that helmets are cool now too. I notice how some of the kids wear them. There’s a strict dress code in the terrain park–beanie under the helmet in a bright color that extends down the back of the neck, goggles inside the helmet and the also-brightly colored helmet over that. It looks hilarious, but at least their skulls are protected.

  9. Agree with Jason and George. I grew up skateboarding, snowboarding and biking and never even owned a helmet. As a 30-something with kids, I now have a total of 4 helmets for snowboarding, skateboarding, mountain biking – including a full-face (which looks pretty bad@ss, too). I always wear a helmet for any of those activities. Sometimes with a camera mounted on it. 😉 My kids also always wear a helmet for any of those things, and fortunately it is now “cool” to have one on. That said… I also don’t think it’s the government’s job to legislate what I put on my body for what activities. Plus, it’s a slippery slope – what about banning terrain parks, or freeriding, or … it never ends. I think everybody has a right to be an idiot, I guess. Dumb to go lidless on any real ride, but should be your choice.

  10. Based on one of the comments earlier about someone working trauma and seeing people with helmets surviving more, makes me wonder if the actress Natasha Richardson was wearing a helmet when she hit her head skiing, and died less than a day later or something. A physician friend of mine saw a photo of me on FaceBook on the slopes not wearing a helment and she scolded me. Although there aren’t greater fatalities apparently, there is greater morbidity without a helment, meaning ending up like Natasha Richardson. So I relented and bought a helme this past spring. I didn’t notice it, wasn’t an unpleasant transition at all. But sigh I don’t think it’s very flattering. NOT the point, though.

  11. Interesting phrase, “no-brainer.” I used to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, too. The judge persuaded me to wear one – the legislation alone din’t penetrate my thick skull, but the enforcement did. But I didn’t translate that reason over into skiing – even though sanctioned speed events required a real helmet, I didn’t use one of the modern styrofoam ones until about a decade ago. Now required by my ski school when teaching. By the way, did you read that styrene is a carcinogen?

    • Hope you picked up the irony in “no-brainer”. Also, if it isn’t clear in my post, I’m against legislating helmet use. While I wear one myself–I like it, it’s warm, it doesn’t fog up my goggles, etc.–I don’t want the government or the ski area to tell me that I have to. And styrene a carcinogen? Eek.

  12. Pingback: Being Mrs. Crystal | Kim Kircher

  13. I started wearing a helmet when I joined a masters race team at Squaw Valley. Boeri race helmet. By today’s standards heavy and hot. I switched this year to a Smith Variant Brim with the matching and compatible Smith I/O Goggles. Perfect! Light, not too warm, and perfect fit. Goggles fog LESS with a helmet, hearing is IMPROVED, and visision is IMPROVED. I wish the ski magazines would do more to feature their cover photos with all skiers wearing helmets. Fashion is part of the problem. I do agree with the helmet law for kids under 18. Squaw Valley employees that drive or ride on a snowmobile are required to wear one for safety. I would never ride my bike without one, so why would I ski without one? Collisions are one of the number one injuries. Skier versus Snowboarder is most common but all combinations abound. I wish everyone would wear one. Btw, take off those headphones, not safe while skiing at all!

  14. Kevin,
    I, too, wear the Smith Variant Brim with Smith goggles. I love it. It fogs less, it’s easier to hear because the wind doesn’t rush by my ears, and it makes a comfortable hat. Someday we’ll all look back on this era and not believe we didn’t all wear them.

  15. I think it is silly not to wear a helmet. I love my brain the way it is, not scrambled… no thank you.
    I rigged up my helmet with a bluetooth headset so I can talk on the phone or listen to music while hitting the slopes. I love it!

  16. I started to wear one around a decade ago, does it work? I’ve only had one big incident ever and fallen at over 82 mph+ (recorded on speed gun seconds earlier) having hit a ski pole partly buried under the snow (*&?@!!!) and shot through the air for well over 100ft before being slammed into the ground, shoulder first followed by head, then bounced up into catch netting. Got helped out of said net by ski patrol (It was Nakiska where such speeds seem positively encouraged) without any chastising or problem, severely winded but the helmet undoubtedly helped save me from far serious injury. Indeed without the helmet I’d have been knocked out or far worse.
    That said I only bought one as I was becoming worried at the level of ‘false confidence’ that wearing one seemed to bring out in people learning to ski & snowboard. Many of whom at the time, at the resort I was at seemed to think that having a helmet on added points on to their skill level, which it did not. I began to think of how much it would hurt if I got hit by someone else wearing one if I wasn’t.
    Of note is that years ago age 19 I did the famous hahnenkamm run at race pace with no helmet – that thought now terrifies me!

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