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Researchers Debate Effectiveness Of Snow Helmets


Olympic snowboarder Sarka Pancochova of the Czech Republic got a flurry of attention when she suffered a nasty crash on the slopes in Sochi that split her helmet. She's OK, the helmet absorbed some of the blow. More than two-thirds of Americans who ski or snowboard now wear helmets.

But as Fred Bever, of member station WBUR reports, there are still the question about how much protection they really provide.


FRED BEVER, BYLINE: Twenty-nine-year-old snowboarder Andrew Weinstein says today, he's especially glad he wears a helmet on the slopes.

ANDREW WEINSTEIN: I turned, hit an edge, flipped over, landed on my face.

BEVER: Weinstein presses an ice bag to his neck, as he leaves the first aid clinic at Maine's Sugarloaf ski resort. He says if he'd been bare-headed it would have been worse.

WEINSTEIN: Oh, my nose would have been smushed a lot more and my head it would have been jostled a lot more. I always wear a helmet. It's a pretty useful tool, especially when you head bang.

BEVER: Research has demonstrated that helmets are effective against relatively minor head injuries like Weinstein's. For some wounds - lacerations from an errant ski pole or tree branch, low-speed face plants and smushed noses, even fractured skulls - helmets can cut the number of injuries by as much as half.

Sugarloaf ski patroller Roddy Ehrlenbach has seen it for himself.

RODDY EHRLENBACH: It's drastically reducing what we call head wounds and skull fractures. Without a doubt, I mean you've got a helmet. But the nature of a concussion is a helmet, it might limit it a little bit, but it's not going to keep your brain from bouncing off the inside of your skull.

BEVER: When it comes to more serious injuries - concussions and bruised brain tissue - the jury is out and arguing a bit. Some studies speculate that helmet-wearers are willing to take more risks. Others contradict that theory. One recent study showed head injuries rising with helmet use. But the researchers say that could simply reflect how the public has become ultra-aware of the dangers of concussions.

DR. JASPER SHEALY: We've come to several conclusions. One is that a helmet is not a panacea.

BEVER: That scientific bottom-line comes from Dr. Jasper Shealy, an international expert in winter sports safety. For 40 years, Shealy's been part of a comprehensive study of every snow injury reported at the Sugarbush ski area in Vermont. At first, it seemed that helmets weren't making a difference with the more serious injuries. But now, Shealy says he is seeing some encouraging signs.

SHEALY: Only in the last, oh, five or six years have we finally seen a reduction in what we call a potentially serious head injury.

BEVER: Shealy says such injuries have fallen by a remarkable 64 percent at Sugarbush, where almost all mountain visitors now wear a helmet. Shealy conjectures that it's only recently that the riskiest skiers who need helmets the most - young men - are consistently wearing them. It could be that their parents required them to put a lid on it back when they were first learning, and the habit stuck.

Shealy stresses that helmets have shown no effect on the rate of mountain fatalities, which usually involve very high speeds, multiple points of trauma, and solid objects like trees or lift towers.

SHEALY: You know, above a certain speed, all bets are off.

BEVER: Shealy says the number of fatalities at American ski resorts is staying steady at around 40 a year.

Maria Carrera is taking the dangers to heart. She sits in the Sugarloaf snow to strap on her new snowboard, helmet firmly on head. Now, if only she could get her grown daughter, Kayleigh Willis, to do the same.

MARIA CARRERA: I would like her to. She is 22 so I can't necessarily make her wear a helmet. But...

KAYLEIGH WILLIS: She'll just nag me until my ears fall off


WILLIS: She's good at it.

CARRERA: So hopefully she'll decide to do the right thing.

BEVER: Most of the experts would say Carrera is right to nag her daughter and that every skier and boarder ought to wear a helmet. They just shouldn't expect miracles.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever in Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.