Ski helmets: a hard nut to crack

I had a rare endorsement from my son recently, when he asked if he could borrow my ski helmet. “What’s wrong with yours?” I asked.

“Your helmet is so beaten up, it looks really cool,” he said.

He’s right. After a few seasons of intermittent wear – I am not very consistent in this – my helmet does look quite distressed.  Apart from the duct tape that holds the goggle strap in place where a retaining clip used to be, there are scuffs and scrapes all over it.  That dangerous object, the chair lift safety bar, is the usual thing that clouts me, but my helmeted head also has a habit of colliding with other people’s shouldered skis and low-flying doorways.  Whenever this happens I think: thank goodness I’m wearing a helmet.

Then another thought comes to mind: how strange that I never seem to hit my head when I’m not wearing a helmet.  Nor did I injure my head in all the ski days before I had a helmet. This thought nags away at me for as long as I have the thing on.

What is it about wearing a helmet that seems to attract bangs on the head?  I don’t believe the extra thickness of the shell is responsible, my field of vision seems no different, and I can’t say my head feels unduly weighed down.  But there is definitely something in this.  Why are batsmen hit on the helmet by fast deliveries more often than they used to be hit on the head before helmets came in to cricket?  I have no answer to this, but am interested by the remarks of champion freeride skier Dominique Perret.  “Guides never wear (helmets) skiing. It is not by accident. In the mountains you need all your senses working fully, in particular hearing.”

A helmet must offer some protection against injury, mustn’t it?  It is an awkward fact, however, that statistics stubbornly fail to deliver evidence of the expected reduction in head injuries to go with growing helmet use.   This article in the New York Times summarises the state of current knowledge and quotes a big study from Michigan which found a 60% increase in head injuries between 2004 and 2010, a period when helmet use increased by almost the same amount.   We can agree that skiers have become more adventurous, but the overall incidence of ski injuries has remained remarkably stable at between 2 and 3 per 1000 skier/days.

All the more reason to wear a helmet?  Perhaps, as long as we don’t exaggerate the protection it offers.  I hope I am not traducing America’s leading snowsports injury experts, Profs Ettlinger and Shealy. in saying that a helmet can mitigate or prevent lacerations and skull fractures, but in accidents serious enough to inflict brain damage, it is “overwhelmed by the energy” of the impact.

A helmet would not have saved Michael Kennedy or Sonny Bono. Whether it would have saved Natasha Richardson, no one knows.  The doctors were quick to say Schumacher’s helmet saved his life.  Let’s hope they are right.

Cycling statistics from countries where helmets are obligatory give a similar message: the incidence of head injuries has not decreased, it has gone up.

How to explain this?  As far as skiing is concerned, the usual explanation is that a helmet makes its wearer braver, faster and more adventurous, and therefore more at risk.  A friend and ‘firm believer’ in helmets writes that he skis at 75mph ‘or more’ without being aware of the speed, and cites this as a good reason to wear a helmet.  I draw the opposite conclusion. If a helmet encourages us to ski that fast, perhaps we should remove it.

Mobile phones make us ski faster. I realised this the other day when someone I was skiing with showed off his satnav app, declared his intention to measure distance and speed on the run we were about to ski, and shot off.  I tried to keep up, not at 75mph, but faster than I would otherwise have been skiing.  If only I had not left my helmet at home, I might have won the race to the restaurant …. or crashed.

No doubt there are skiers out there who enjoy texting and snapchatting while bombing down the piste.  My son loves to do jumps and spins in the terrain park, but if no one is there to capture his antics on video, he won’t bother.  That’s another thing: terrain parks are a new danger zone.

Half pipes, ski cross races, extreme freeride competitions on perilous steeps  …  all contribute to “a snow sports culture that celebrates risk.”   The papers and websites keep telling us not to ski off-piste if we value our lives, beside exciting advertising images of billowing powder and heroic cliff jumps.

Then there’s the hardware. A carving skier accelerates through the turn, whereas an old-fashioned skidder slows down.   Pistes are groomed hard and slick, and moguls are now a rarity.  More efficient lifts make the piste more crowded with faster skiers.  More than one third of head injuries result from collisions on the piste.  Could it be time to say goodbye to this carnage and head for the uncrowded off-piste where we can ski as slowly as we like without fear of being carved up or crashed into by a helmeted skier careering down the mountain at 75mph?

Perhaps we can say the great helmet debate is a transitional issue that will look after itself.  Nearly all children now wear one, nearly all of them will go on doing so and the proportion of non-wearers will steadily decline as they give up or die off, mostly not as a result of a head injury incurred while skiing.

Here are some 2011/12 statistics from Médecins de Montagne ( – a group of 60 doctors in 35 French resorts who have been surveying injuries since 1992.  One of their less ambiguous messages concerns the dangers of tobogganing.   Don’t even think of doing it without a helmet.

Skiers outnumber snowboarders by 5:1

140,000 injuries. 5.6% hospitalised.

The rate of snowboard injury is much more variable than that of ski injury. In 2011/12 the overall injury rate was 2.3 per 1000 days for skiers, 2.8 for snowboarders. In 2004 the snowboarder injury rate was 5 per 1000 days.

Adults in helmets: 37% (growing fast)

Adolescents in helmets:  72%

Children in helmets: 97%

Children 3x more likely than adults to suffer head injury in a collision

Brain trauma = 3.3% of injuries (not much difference between skiers and snowboarders)

Broken wrist = 61% of injuries suffered by snowboarders under 16

30% of skier injuries are to the knee

30% of injuries suffered by women skiers over 15 are ruptured ACL

The rate of collisions on piste (12.5% of injuries) and brain trauma injuries have been going up (‘légèrement’) for 10 years

Toboggan: only 30% of injuries are children.  Injuries often serious, 1/3 to head and upper body.

The safety norms for helmets are the same whether you spend 20 or 450 euros

Comments are closed.