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  • MUST YOUR KIDS WEAR A HELMET?
    OR, SHOULD THEY?

    By Mitch Kaplan

    Northstar-at-Tahoe Ski School Kids 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?

    Maybe.

    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 strong advocates

    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 80%.

    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 safety initiative.

    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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