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Ski helmets reduce injuries, but death rate stays same

For decades, many skiers considered wearing helmets for safety "uncool." But more recently they seem to be warming to the idea, though the result has not been a decrease in deaths.
Helmet use has increased by up to 5 percentage points a year but the number of deaths still averages 38 a year, unchanged.
During the 2004-05 season, one-third of skiers and snowboarders wore helmets, according to Jasper Shealy, professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., and who has studied ski related injuries for more than 30 years. It is estimated 40 percent within the population at greatest risk - experienced young adult male skiers and snowboarders - wear helmets.
Asher Crank, a 17-year-old competitive skier from Crested Butte, died last month while practicing for an event at the Copper Mountain Catalyst Terrain Park. Crank, who was wearing a helmet, landed on his head from a 30-foot height. He suffered a closed head injury.
Also last month, Geoffry Bradeen, 45, of Portland died of a head injury while skiing at Mount Hood Meadows. Investigators say he apparently was hit from behind by a snowboarder as he was getting up.
Oregon's medical examiner said a helmet would likely have saved Bradeen, who died of a skull fracture.
Maka Kalai, manager of Christy Sports in Fort Collins, said helmets are catching on with skiers and riders. He estimated 30 percent of those renting equipment also rent helmets, which are an additional $5. Helmet rental is free at the store for those ages 12 and younger. Outpost Sunsport in Fort Collins, rents helmets for $4 per day.
"One of the things that the (fatality) statistics don't show is how much more the sports have grown,'' Kalai said. "I've had two people on my staff who had their helmets split down the middle when one was hit by a skier and the other hit a tree. They work.''
Studies show such collisions are rare and account for only 6.4 percent of reported ski accidents, said Shealy.
His research shows that the use of a helmet reduces the incidence of any head injury by 30 percent to 50 percent, but that the decrease in head injuries is generally limited to the less serious injuries such as scalp lacerations, mild concussions and contusions to the head, as opposed to more serious injuries such as serious concussions, skull fractures, closed head injuries and the like. There has been no significant reduction in fatalities over the past nine seasons even as the use of helmets overall has increased.
He said most skiing and snowboarding deaths are caused by hitting a tree or other fixed object at high speed, resulting in chest or torso injuries.
"Frankly, you're going to need more than a helmet to prevent that fatality," he said.
The pattern of death seems to be affected by the use of a helmet. Most fatalities are due to multiple causes or injuries. Approximately two-thirds of those who die who do not use a helmet have as the first cause of death some injury to the head. For those who die while wearing a helmet, only about one-third have a head injury as the first cause of death.
He and others looked at 562 deaths from fall 1991 through spring 2005, finding that 60 percent were the result of a skier or snowboarder hitting a tree.
Hitting the snow is the second-biggest killer, with 9.7 percent, and hitting manmade objects, such as lift towers, is third, at 7.6 percent.
A U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission study concluded that 44 percent of 17,500 head injuries to skiers and snowboarders in 1997 could have been prevented or reduced in severity with helmet use. It suggested that helmets could prevent an average of 11 deaths a year.
The agency said skiing-associated emergency room visits declined between 1993 and 1997 but that snowboarding injuries nearly tripled and the number of snowboarding head injuries increased fivefold.
However, the number of people snowboarding during that time increased just 30 percent, to 2.5 million, the National Sporting Goods Association said.
"There's really no helmet currently on the market that is designed to decrease the rate of minor concussive injury," said Dr. Mike Murray, director of the Mountain Medical Clinic at Mount Hood Meadows.
Bradeen's death raised questions about whether the ski area does enough to prevent accidents. This year, Mount Hood Meadows is more aggressively revoking passes from people who ski or ride dangerously, President Dave Riley said.
Since Bradeen's death, many Meadows users have said that snowboarders pose a greater risk to others, particularly on crowded weekends.
Murray said snowboarders use the hill differently than skiers by weaving side to side. And because they are riding sideways on their boards, they have a blind spot when they turn toward their heels.
"The more snowboarders you see, the more head injuries you're going to see," Murray said. "Eighty to 90 percent of the head injuries we see are snowboarders."

Helmet buying tips

1. Bring along your goggles, or borrow a pair that matches yours from the shop, when trying on the helmet

2. Make sure your entire forehead is covered by your helmet or goggles.

3. Look for a helmet that is engineered to work well with goggles or provides its own integrated goggles.

4. Make sure the helmet conforms to a ski/snowboard helmet standard, which include Common European Norm, American Society of Testing and Materials or Snell.

Who wears helmets?
66 percent of those ages 9 and younger

46 percent of those ages 65 and older

19 percent of entry level skiers/boarders

45 percent of advanced/expert skiers/boarders

35 percent of males

30 percent of females

Source: National Ski Areas Association
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Last edited by administrator; 02-20-2007 at 01:11 PM.
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