Snow Boarder
Professor Koster
WRIT 102
November 28, 2001  

Helmets: Life or Liberty?

            Snow boarding and snow skiing are two of the most enjoyed recreational sports in the world today. They give a unique sense of freedom and satisfaction that is unlike any other sport can offer. Rob Reichenfeld remarked after his first lesson, “When you’re onto a good thing you stick with it, and like millions around the world I had discovered something undefinably special” (2). The freedom to carve down an entire mountain as fast or as slowly as desired, to drop off a twenty-foot cliff into five feet of fluff, to weave a line through a patch of technical trees, or to float down a steep face with bottomless powder are just a few reasons so many people are determined to make it to the mountains every year in search of a supreme rush. Snow sports provide an outlet for people to express themselves in unconventional ways by taking risks they normally would not take.

            Snow sports are becoming more popular than ever before. They are prevalent in movies such as Extreme Days, Out Cold, several James Bond films, and Aspen Extreme, just to name a few. Now we see the X Games on television and snow sports in the Olympics. And the commercial market has taken full advantage of the extreme side of these sports as well. Mountain Dew has created an entire marketing scheme based solely on extreme sports, with snowboarding being a large part. Not only are snow sports becoming exceeding popular in the media, more and more newcomers are picking up a board or a set of skis every day of the winter season. Along with all of this new popularity and thousands of new partakers in these sports, head injuries are becoming an increasing element of the equation. Although the percentage of head injuries due to snow sports is fairly low, about 0.3—6.5 skiers or snowboarders per thousand a day (“Heads you win?…”), a lot of people are affected when you consider how many thousands of people might be skiing or snowboarding in the entire U.S. on any given day. These numbers have raised a question of some magnitude: should ski resorts intrude on their guests’ individual liberties by implementing helmet rules?

            Helmets do have several distinct drawbacks, despite their many benefits. Though opinions are starting to change, helmets are sometimes viewed as uncool or “nerdy”. These ideas are similar to those people used to have about motorcycle helmets, car seat belts, bicycle helmets, and skating elbow- and kneepads. Initially, it seems, any form of safety equipment gets a bad rap, especially from a young crowd that has no real concern for bodily harm.

            A more credible drawback to wearing helmets that has been presented is vision impairment, along with the lack of comfort helmets have been known to cause in the past. “I wore one when I raced downhill, and it restricted visibility. It has to do with how comfortable I feel and having a feel for the mountain with peripheral vision. Helmets are constricting,” argues former world champion snowboarder Amy Howat (Johnston). It seems that many skiers and riders feel the same way that Amy does about helmets. Many snowboarders contend that they will not wear a helmet because they need to be able to hear the sound their board is making on the snow in order to help adjust their speed and to feel comfortable on their boards.

Although these arguments do bear some merit, migh many serious head injuries be avoided at the expense of some of these comforts? As a former Park City Mountain Resort lift operator during the 1999-2000 season, I had the chance to witness firsthand a couple of these injuries. One, coincidentally, was very inexperienced snowboards who was trying to push his limits and succeeded in doing so. He was venturing down a black mogul run that was well beyond his riding ability. Towards the top of the run he lost control of his board and ran head-on into a tree that was located on the side of the slope. I happened to be merging into the bottom half of the same run when he came cartwheeling to a halt directly in front of me. It was a very gruesome sight to behold; there were actually pieces of his brain in the snow around his head. The young snowboarder is now a complete vegetable due to brain damage sustained in this accident.

            Though they do account for a large number of mountain accidents, novice boarders and skiers are not the only people who fall victim to these brutal head injuries. Advanced to expert skiers and boarders encounter head injury as a result of trying to push the envelope to progress in these sports or just by random screw-ups. In another case, a very experienced skier, an instructor at a neighboring mountain, was visiting Park City Mountain Resort for the day. Somehow he lost control on a blue run, which was well below his skiing ability, and went over a ridge where he hit a tree. His body was found the next day by a couple of kids who accidentally went off the same ridge. This example shows that anyone, no matter what level skiing or boarding experience they have, can lose control on any run regardless of the run’s difficulty level.

            The concept of helmets for the purpose of resort skiing and boarding is increasingly gaining popularity. Helmets are beginning to lose the “nerdy” reputation they once had. The Snow Sports Industries Association of America reported that in the winter of 1996-97, sales of snow sports helmets tripled from 80, 537 helmets to an astonishing 242,632 helmets (Johnston). This increase has resulted for several reasons. People are starting to realize the inherent risk involved in these sports. Many, mainly experienced skiers and riders have had the unfortunate opportunity of witnessing the consequences of not wearing appropriate head gear on the mountain and have thus been motivated to start wearing it. Helmets are also becoming more stylish than before. Every year companies like Boeri and ProTec are introducing more attractive and comfortable helmet designs, along with the likes of well-known and well-respected ski and snowboard manufacturers such as K2 and Burton.

            It has been argued that helmets can be very cumbersome, uncomfortable, and restrictive to visibility, when in fact, quite the opposite is becoming the case. While it is true that a few years ago helmets were very bulky and inhibiting, today’s helmet designs are quite sleek-fitting and lightweight, while visibility is restricted no more than by normal goggles. Helmets are more correctly fitted to the shape of the rider’s head, offering more comfort, and they provide an extra barrier of protection from those frigid winter days, while at the same time including closable ventilation for spring blue bird days.

            The benefits of wearing head protection while resort skiing or snowboarding greatly outweigh the disadvantages, so such protective headgear should be required by all ski resorts. With the improvements being made in the comfort, stylishness, and effectiveness of helmets in the industry, there are no excuses left for skiers or boarders not to be wearing them. These types of resort rules could save countless lives as well as possibly saving innumerable tax dollars that are spend on the medical costs of people who receive brain damage as result of snow sport-induced head trauma. Such rules would also serve to lower lift ticket prices, as less money would be spent by resorts to defend against lawsuits brought on by head trauma victims. It would be to the benefit of everyone in the snow sports community if such regulations were to be put into place. I hope that they will indeed be applied in the near future, further insuring many more years of safe and exhilarating snow sporting.


Works Cited

“Heads you win?…the low down on helmets on the slopes.” 6 June 2001. 27 November 2001

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Johnston, Greg. “Skiers and snowboarders race into the debate on helmets.” ­Seattle Post Online 29 October 1998

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Reichenfeld, Rob, and Anna Breuchert. Snowboarding. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishing, 1995.