More and more skiers will hit the slopes this winter wearing helmets.
And it will not just be out-of-control racers and the offspring of overly protective parents.
Ski helmets are carving an ever-widening niche in the mainstream market, rapidly gaining popularity with recreational skiers of varying ages and abilities.
“Just a few years ago there was no growth in the helmet market at all,” says Steve Hollander, a vice president for marketing at Briko, a leading helmet maker. “This year we project sales will be up 30 percent.”
At Bob’s Chalet in Bristol, Conn., owner Dave Abrams expects to sell between 80 and 140 helmets this season.
“This is our third strong year for helmets,” Abrams says. “We are starting to see a lot of adults getting into them.”
Ali Zacaroli, a spokesperson for SnowSports Industries America, compares the spread of ski helmets to that of bicycle helmets.
“Twenty years ago if you saw someone riding with a bicycle helmet you would have thought, what a freak. Now when you see someone riding without a bicycle helmet you think that.
“I don’t know if ski helmets will ever reach the bicycle-helmet point, but they are becoming more and more acceptable. This year, professional ski instructors will be required to wear them, and when you tune into the Winter Olympic on television, you will see almost everyone wearing a helmet of some kind.”
But are all these brain buckets really necessary?
According to Jasper Shealy of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who is regarded as the country’s leading expert on ski injuries, there is no statistical evidence to support an increase in the use of helmets.
“We have been tracing ski injuries for the past 25 years,” Shealy says, “and the rate of head injuries to skiers is virtually unchanged.”
Shealy says skiers suffer about 3,000 head injuries annually, which make up about 2.5 percent of all ski-related injuries.
While Shealy concedes it is always better to be wearing a helmet than not if you strike your head, he also says there is a limit to the protection a helmet will afford.
“A helmet does an excellent job protecting you from the most common head injury, a mild concussion,” he says. “And it can make more serious injuries less severe. But as you go up the severity scale, a helmet’s value drops off dramatically.
“As far as a direct impact goes, a helmet only offers protection up to 12 miles per hour. And most severe head injuries occur at between 25 and 40 miles per hour. At that speed, a helmet will not make a great deal of difference.”
Another helmet concern Shealy has is what he calls “off-setting behavior.” He defines this as the tendency of many people to take more chances because they are wearing a helmet.
“I have people tell me they don’t ski in the trees without a helmet,” Shealy says. “The helmet gives them a false sense of security.”
He says males make up 85 percent of skiing-related deaths, and that males in their late teens and 20s, make up half of that group.
Shealy adds that half of skiing deaths involve collisions with trees, while the other half comes from striking objects - rocks, lift towers and other people.
“If you want to significantly reduce your chances of being killed while skiing,” Shealy says, “stay away from the trees.”
As for kids and helmets, Shealy says there are very few deaths among young skiers.
In the end, the decision to wear or not wear a helmet comes down to a individual choice.
“Personally, I would not dream of getting on my bicycle without a helmet,” says Shealy. “But as far as ski helmets go, I’m kind of neutral because of the knowledge I have regarding their use and head injuries.”