Are ski helmets the answer? – controversy over use of helmets to prevent ski injuries
December 31, 1997: Michael Kennedy, son of the late U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy, skis down a Colorado slope while tossing a water bottle with friends. He slams into a tree, sustains head injuries, and dies.
January 5, 1998: U.S. Representative Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) also hits a tree while skiing on a California ski slope. The force of the collision hills him instantly.
These celebrities’ deaths have brought national attention to the debate over ski helmets. Requiring skiers to wear helmets, many say, would have prevented the deaths of Kennedy and Bono as well as many other deaths and injuries that occur each year on U.S. ski slopes.
Cyclists Wear Helmets
Many states require bicyclists to wear helmets but do not require them for skiers–even though skiers can travel two to three times faster than cyclists. At those higher speeds, argue helmet advocates, skiers need head protection.
According to the American Medical Association, about 130,000 skiers are injured or killed each year. Of those injuries, says Dr. P.J. Perrinjaquet, about 5 to 10 percent are head injuries. Helmets, advocates say, could have prevented the 6,500 to 13,000 head injuries that occur every year.
Making skiers wear helmets, helmet law supporters argue, would not only prevent deaths, but would also lessen the impact of any skiing head injury. “You can walk with a limp,” warns Dr. Perrinjaquet, “but it’s hard to think with a limp.”
Professional skiers have to wear helmets. Other skiers, say advocates of ski helmets, are entitled to the same protection.
Skiers Don’t Need Helmets
Skiing injuries, helmet law opponents contend, are extremely rare. “You are ten times more likely to become a fatality statistic bicycling than skiing,” said John Frew, president of Colorado Sky Country USA. Noting that 300 Americans die each year after falling in the bathtub and only about 35 die in skiing accidents, he joked grimly, “Maybe (people) should quit taking showers.”
Good judgment is better protection than a helmet, opponents of helmet laws say. Michael Kennedy, they point out, died while playing a dangerous ski-football game; Sonny Bono died when he ventured off the ski trail. Helmets, opponents insist, might even make skiing more dangerous by giving those wearing them a false sense of security. Helmeted skiers, opponents contend, often feel invulnerable and tend to become reckless–skiing too fast and choosing ski trails far above their ability.
Should skiers be required by law to wear helmets while skiing?
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ARE SKI HELMETS THE ANSWER?
“This is the breakthrough year for helmets,” says Steve Bunt, owner of the ski equipment shop Crested Buttle Sports, Inc. Now that helmet prices have come down to about $80, he says the choice for parents comes down to “What’s your kid’s head worth to you?”
Indeed, in the last ski season, about 80,000 ski helmets were sold–that’s a 22 percent jump from the past year. The majority of helmets are worn by children, but sales of helmets for adults are also growing.
With the publicity surrounding the Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono deaths, many retailers and manufacturers of ski helmets figured that they would be receiving more business. According to a report in USA Today, however, that extra business has never materialized.
By the Numbers
When comparing it to other sports, deaths from skiing accidents are fairly rare. For example, for every one million ski lift tickets sold each year, less than one skiing death occurs. By comparison, 7.1 cyclists die per million days spent bicycling and 17 swimmers die per million days spend swimming.
The American Medical Association, while they endorse the use of helmets for kids, but have not concluded that helmets should be made necessary. Still, a contingent of skiing and medical professionals strongly favor requiring ski helmets.
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