FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – Winter has arrived in our region in a flurry of white. But before you head to the ski slope, there’s one piece of gear experts say you should always have in place.
“Every skier and snowboarder should wear a helmet to protect themselves from serious head injuries,” said Victor Khabie, MD, chief of surgery and sports medicine and co-director of the Orthopedic and Spine Institute at Northern Westchester Hospital. Khabie emphasizes the importance of ski helmets for those at all ends of the skill spectrum, from tentative or beginning skiers, to those who have mastered mogul-dotted, black diamond trails.
Stephen Leake, a salesperson at Outdoor Sports Center in Wilton, is also adamant about the need for headgear.
“Packed snow -- not the white fluffy stuff -- is just as hard as blacktop on a road,” he said. “Combine that with the fact that there are so many more skiers and snowboarders on mountains these days, and you’ve got a strong argument for wearing a helmet all the time.”
More and more skiers seem to agree. Helmet sales in the United States have risen from 290,000 in 1998 -- 1999 to 1.3 million in 2009 -2010, according to the National Ski Area Association. And as of 2011, 67 percent of skiers and snowboarders in the U.S. and 80 percent worldwide wore helmets while traversing slopes, said the NSAA.
The NSAA also states that on average, 11 deaths each year in the past decade could have been attributed to head injuries, which might have been prevented with helmet use.
“As a tentative skier, you may not be skilled enough to get out of the way of another skier -- or a tree,” said Khabie. But he points out that some experienced skiers are less inclined to don headgear if only because of their advanced skill. “That’s like saying, ‘I am a good driver, so I don’t need to wear a seatbelt.’”
The unfortunate reality, he said, is that it’s often “the other guy” who can cause a problem, a situation over which you have no control.
Troy Hawks, a spokesperson for the Colorado-based NSAA, said helmets -- which are not mandatory gear on ski slopes -- are also helpful in preventing injuries of the more prosaic variety: they also “help skiers avert minor bangs and bumps that can occur while not actually skiing.”
Hawks calls himself an “inattentive skier,” particularly while the chairlift bar is being lowered, when he often gets “whacked in the head.” He’s also been inadvertently “bopped” in the head at the base lodge by skis carried on the shoulders of walking skiers.
While price can vary by brand, the most critical part of a ski helmet is its fit, said Leake, and a reputable ski shop will take the time to measure and fit you before sending you out of the store with a new helmet. A properly fit helmet is comfortable and offers maximum protection and performance, he said. Additionally, he said, helmets have an added benefit of being warmer than hats, and also feature venting and removable ear pads for warmer conditions.
“Once you’ve worn a properly fitted helmet, you’ll never notice it’s on your head,” Leake said.
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