Should I wear a helmet for skiing and snowboarding?
In the past decade helmet usage has soared to over 80% in most resorts – but we are still regularly asked ‘do I need a helmet to ski’.
What the Experts say
In 2011 the NHS reported on the benefits of wearing ski and snowboard helmets.
“After reviewing several studies which claim wearing a helmet can reduce head injuries by 35% in adults and 59% in children, the NHS maintain this research has several shortcomings. Firstly many reports have a lack of sampling of control groups, and an unclear definition of what actually constitutes a head injury.”
A later study carried out in 2015 from ASTM internationalreported that over a 17 season period (1996 – 2012) the number of people opting to wear a helmet went up from 8% to 84% and, correspondingly, head injuries went down from 8.4% to 6.8%. The ASTM study also reported that head injuries which could be deemed ‘potentially serious’ had decreased from 4.2% to 3%. These small percentage decreases vary wildly from the high figures reported by the NHS just 4 years earlier.
Most recently, in 2018 Nicolas Bailly PhD of l’Hôpital de Sacré-Coeur de Montréal in Canada published findings that stated whilst helmets protect against head injuries such as bruises and gashes quite significantly, the same cannot be said for brain injuries like concussion.
So, should we wear a ski and snowboard helmet and what do we gain?
In 2011, the NHS conclude the actual risk of head injury for skiers and snowboarders is relatively low. Despite reporting great results in the reduction of head injuries, they stated that only 1 in 11,000 ski or snowboard outings result in a head injury, and serious head injuries causing fatalities are extremely rare. When we consider this information alongside the more recent research that the injuries most commonly prevented are superficial grazes and bruises – it can raise the question ‘why do we bother’
The general agreement amongst experts, it that helmets are most effective if collisions happen at speeds below 15mph. As we all know, the majority of intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders regularly travel at speeds much faster, which increases the risk even if wearing a helmet.
The benefits of wearing a helmet
As this article discusses the medical benefits to wearing a helmet, we’re going to talk about the aesthetics here.
Most regular helmet wearers describe higher levels of comfort. Helmets unlike woolly hats don’t itch, they don’t soak up moisture and are warm when it’s cold, and cool when it’s hot (thanks to vents).
New styles and designs of helmets have also made helmets much more fashionable than their predecessors and there is a huge market for original and bespoke designs.
Disadvantages of wearing a helmet
It has been argued helmets may impair vision and hearing and that they encourage people to take greater risks. The so-called ‘Risk Compensation theory’ means the wearer of a helmet feels a greater sense of protection, and therefore, enters into more dangerous activities.
Whilst there are some theoretical arguments to prove this, there is no published evidence to support risk compensation as a stable argument against ski and snowboard helmets.
There is a small financial disadvantage. Helmets come in many shapes, sizes and prices, but all are more expensive than a bobble hat. One should ask, ‘how much is my head worth?’ before making a decision to wear – or not wear – a helmet based on cost.
When are helmets mandatory?
Most sports school have now made helmets compulsory for instructors when teaching. Almost 100% of children on the slopes wear helmets and instructors must lead by example. Sports schools have made helmets mandatory for participants who wish to shadow lessons, as well their instructors.
Snowboarders have to be aware that the Canadian Association of Snowboard Instructors, (who certify and test those wishing to become a qualified, internationally recognised instructor), have made helmets mandatory for their Level 1, 2, 3 and 4 course exams.
If you want to teach in the park, helmets are mandatory for both skiers and snowboarders.
Helmets have become the norm on the slopes. It seems, despite a lack of any evidence proving they provide additional protection, skiers and snowboarders perceive helmets to be safer. Incidences such as Michael Schumacher’s fall in France and the death of Natasha Richardson in Canada, have raised the profile of the importance of wearing a helmet, and may have prevented thousands of injuries – we just don’t know for sure.
The recent studies we’ve looked at do not show huge statistical benefits to wearing a helmet, however, the correlations, even though marginal, do show a reduction in injury since the majority of skiers and snowboarders have started wearing helmets. It is largely agreed that a helmet won’t make a huge difference when someone is faced with a blunt trauma to head, however there is no evidence to show a helmet would make a concussion or blunt trauma worse.
Here at Winter Sports, all our staff choose to wear helmets, the general consensus is ‘what have I got to lose?’ – nothing, not even street cred – helmets are the new ‘cool’.