MUST YOUR KIDS WEAR A HELMET?
OR, SHOULD THEY?
By Mitch Kaplan
Ski and snowboarding helmets have recently been vaulted into the spotlight by announcements that Aspen and Crested Butte will require kids twelve and under enrolled in ski/board school to wear helmets; and Vail Resorts (Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Arrowhead and possibly Heavenly Resort) will require parents to sign a release form if they don't want their kids to wear a helmet when in ski/board school.
Additionally, a number of state legislatures - Colorado, New York and
New Jersey among them - have mandatory helmet use laws under consideration.
But, two questions surface immediately: To what extent do helmets actually protect us? And, should their use be required, rather than voluntary?
According to studies, head injuries among skiers and snowboarders are uncommon. But, when they happen, they can be devastating. So, shouldn't even the remote possibility of coma, paralysis and, yes, death be enough to make snowsliders cover their kids' heads, and their own heads, as well?
Sure, there are a lot of excuses not to wear one. I get too hot. I can't hear. They're uncomfortable. They violate my freedom. They look dorky... Especially that last one. Among kids who most need to be wearing a helmet - ages 12-24 - that's probably the number one excuse. The last thing a kid wants is to be perceived as being uncool.
Still, Dr. Stewart Levy tells us, a properly constructed and fitted helmet can significantly reduce the probability of brain injury. Dr. Levy, a Denver-based neurosurgeon, helped launch a successful helmet-loaner program in Colorado called "It Ain't Brain Surgery". He points out that while brain injury among skiers and riders account for only 2.5%-10% of all injuries treated at slopeside clinics, his study of snowsliders admitted to a Level I trauma center during 1998-2002 showed that 277 out of 819, or one-third, had a traumatic brain injury. Significantly fewer helmet wearers in that population showed severe injuries than non-helmet users. His conclusion? Helmets can reduce the risk of brain injury by some 65%-75%.
Well, isn't that enough reason to put a helmet on your children?
If the helmet is properly fitted. And if the user understands what the helmet will and won't do.
Putting a helmet on them may induce a false sense of safety and actually lead to increased dangerous behavior. Carl Ettlinger, director of Vermont Safety Research, who has studied snowsliding injury trends for more than 30 years, thinks so. He refers to this as "offsetting behavior." While he's quick to point out that the evidence is anecdotal and not necessarily measurable, he firmly believes that the effect is real. He points to increased head injury rates among young bicyclists and junior hockey players since the imposition of required helmets - sometimes by state law.
Adding to the problem are the perplexingly mixed societal messages
children receive. On the one hand, we're telling them to use a helmet
and other safety equipment; on the other hand, they're being bombarded
with photo and video images of bare-headed skiers and riders leaping
from cliffs and turning flips off terrain park hits and halfpipes. Or,
with TV shows like "Survivor" that celebrate risk. To whom do these
images appeal most? You guessed it - the kids whose behavior puts them
most at risk of injury: adolescent and young-adult males. Oh well, boys
will be boys, won't they? Even if they're wearing protective head gear.
What's a mother to do?
Exercise parental responsibility and inform your child. It's not enough
to simply put your kid in a helmet, you must also educate him/her about
the helmet's limitations. A helmet is of little help if you smack your
head on a tree at 40 miles per hour. It won't prevent cervical spine
injuries when you catch big air and fall on your neck. The basic
responsibility code still applies, the primary rule of which is
ski/ride under control! It's up to us to get that message across
to our children.
Or, as Michael Berry, president of the National ski Areas Association,
puts it: "Wear a helmet, but ski as if you don't."
Carl Ettlinger firmly believes that only when parents buy into and
reinforce the importance of helmets while conveying their limitations
will the number of users go up. Few people want to be told they must do
something. But, when parents accept an idea voluntarily, they become
But, helmet cost in itself can be a deterrent. And not just the purchase
price. Statistics from Dr. Levy's Colorado helmet-lending program
indicate that among people who rented equipment, only 1%-5% would pay an
extra few dollars to include a helmet in the rental package. But, at the
stores in which free loaner helmets were offered, the number of users
climbed to 33%. Making helmets available at ski school equipment and
sign-up desks, and encouraging parents to utilize them, increased use to
Ski areas nationwide are making helmets more readily available for
voluntary use with programs like Waterville Valley's "Rent Helmet, It's
a Smart Idea" program, which includes incentives like discounts on later
helmet purchases. And, programs like the "Lids on Kids" campaign
sponsored by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) can help parents
and children better understand helmet why's and wherefore's. (Link to
www.nsaa.org/safety/helmets for some basic info; look for a
special website - www.lidsonkids.org - for up to date info.) For those
with youngsters in that oh-so-daring 12 and up age range, visit "Smart
Style" (www.nsaa.org), an NSAA/Burton terrain park
The resorts' mandatory helmet rule raises many questions. Most important
among them: If ages 12 and up are most at risk, why is 12 and under the
rule? And, what role does personal choice/freedom play? But, the bottom
line is this: a helmet, while it may save a life, is not an
injury-prevention panacea; using them is smart, but understanding their
proper fit and limitations is essential.
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...... Mitch Kaplan
is the author of "The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids," a
contributor to "The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with
Kids," and the author of "The Cheapskate's Guide to Myrtle Beach" and
"The Golf Book of Lists".