Recently, researchers from the department of sports science at the University of Innsbruck in Austria stood on the slopes at a local ski resort and trained a radar gun on a group of about 500 skiers and snowboarders, each of whom had completed a lengthy personality questionnaire about whether he or she tended to be cautious or a risk taker.
The researchers had asked their volunteers to wear their normal ski gear and schuss or ride down the slopes at their preferred speed. Although they hadn’t informed the volunteers, their primary aim was to determine whether wearing a helmet increased people’s willingness to take risks, in which case helmets could actually decrease safety on the slopes.
What they found was reassuring.
To many who hit the slopes with regularity, the value of wearing a helmet can seem self-evident. It protects your head from severe injury.
Indeed, studies have concluded that helmets reduce the risk of a serious head injury by as much as 60 percent. But a surprising number of safety experts and snow sports enthusiasts remain unconvinced that helmets reduce injury risk.
Why? A telling 2009 survey of ski patrollers from across the country found that 77 percent did not wear helmets because they worried that the headgear could reduce their peripheral vision, hearing and response times, making them slower and clumsier. In addition, many worried that if they wore helmets, less-adept skiers and snowboarders might do likewise, feel invulnerable and engage in riskier behavior.
In the past several years, a number of researchers have tried to resolve these concerns. And in almost all instances, helmets have proved their value.
In the Innsbruck speed experiment, the researchers found that people whom the questionnaires showed to be risk takers skied and rode faster than those who were by nature cautious. No surprise.
But wearing a helmet did not increase people’s speed, as would be expected if the headgear encouraged risk taking. Cautious people were slower than risk-takers, whether they wore helmets or not; and risk-takers were fast, whether their heads were protected or bare.
The take-away from the growing body of science about ski helmets is unequivocal, said Dr. Adil Haider, a trauma surgeon and associate professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and co-author of a major new review of studies related to winter helmet use. “Helmets are safe," he said. “They don’t seem to increase risk taking. And they protect against serious, even fatal head injuries."