Just for the record, I wear a helmet, my wife wears a helmet and my adult kids wear a helmet while skiing.
The fact that Michael Schumacher was wearing a helmet when he sustained a life-threatening head injury while skiing in France on Sunday probably did not come as a surprise to experts who have charted the increasing presence of helmets on slopes and halfpipes in recent years. The fact that the helmet did not prevent Schumacher’s injury probably did not surprise them, either.
Schumacher’s injury also focused attention on an unsettling trend. Although skiers and snowboarders in the United States are wearing helmets more than ever — 70 percent of all participants, nearly triple the number from 2003 — there has been no reduction in the number of snow-sports-related fatalities or brain injuries in the country, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
Experts ascribe that seemingly implausible correlation to the inability of helmets to prevent serious head injuries like Schumacher’s and to the fact that more skiers and snowboarders are engaging in risky behaviors: skiing faster, jumping higher and going out of bounds.
“There’s a push toward faster, higher, pushing the limits being the norm, not the exception,” said Nina Winans, a sports medicine physician at Tahoe Forest MultiSpecialty Clinics in Truckee, Calif. “So, all of those factors — terrain parks, jumping cliffs and opening terrain that maybe wasn’t open in the past — play into some of these statistics with injuries.”
The population most susceptible to that culture is the one that is dying, statistics show. Seventy percent of snow-sports fatalities involve men in their late teens to late 30s, according to the ski area association. That is the same population that most often engages in high-risk behaviors like driving fast. Head injuries remain the leading cause of deaths in skiing and snowboarding, Shealy said, with about 30 in the United States each year.
“The helmet does a very good job at protecting against skull lacerations and skull fractures, but it doesn’t seem to have much effect on concussions or T.B.I.’s,” Shealy said, referring to traumatic brain injuries. “Our guess is that this is due to the fact that those injuries are occurring at such a high magnitude of energy that they overwhelm what a helmet can do for you.”