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February 1, 2013
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Check your head

It would seem the days of looking like a newbie because you're rocking a helmet on the slopes are over.

After all, Shaun White wore one during his gold-medal run at the Winter X Games last weekend and Sierra-at-Tahoe rider Maddie Bowman threw down in the Aspen superpipe Friday with a black helmet on.

Helmet sales and rentals at the South Shore have skyrocketed in the past few years, according to Powder House General Manager Bob Spees. More and more people are realizing it's simply a good idea to protect their heads while skiing or riding on the slopes, Spees said.

"The price has come down to where it's reasonable. [The helmets] have a lot more features, they're much more comfortable and the older people are realizing that it's just a good idea," he said.

Data from the National Ski Areas Association supports Spees' observations. The NSAA found that helmet users jumped to almost 70 percent of all winter recreationists this year, up from 25 percent in 2002. The lowest percentage of helmet users - 53 percent - were young adults 18 to 24 years old.

The Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma issued a statement in 2011 that outlined the importance of helmet use. The group found that helmets decrease the risk and severity of head injuries, which account for about 20 percent of all ski- and snowboard-related medical issues in the U.S. each year.

While it may seem like common sense to wear a helmet, some winter snowsports enthusiasts posited the headgear can actually increase a skier or rider's chance of injury.

A 2009 University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine nationwide survey of ski patrollers reported that only 23 percent wore helmets. The skiers and riders who didn't wear the headgear cited concerns about impaired hearing and discomfort. They also worried helmets would encourage recklessness.

Three years ago a group of Austrian researches set out to explore that claim - does helmet use actually encourage skiers and riders to take more risks? Their answer was a succinct "no."

"Risk-taking behavior on ski slopes is associated with younger age, higher skiing ability, male sex, lower body mass index and on average higher speeds. Helmet use is not associated with riskier behavior on slopes. In addition, helmet use has to be recommended because helmet use reduces the risk of head injuries among skiers and snowboarders," the conclusion read.

The scientists found that the more experienced or advanced the skier, the more likely he or she would wear a helmet.

Researchers from the same Austrian university also disproved the link between slower reaction time and helmet use. They tested the reaction times of 20 people with a hat, a helmet, a hat with goggles and finally a helmet with goggles. They found the helmet did not impair hearing or peripheral vision, nor did it decrease reaction time.

"It's just common sense that people buy them," Tahoe Sports Ltd. Owner Mark Gandt said. "We've seen helmet purchases be very steady for the past three years now."

California legislators sent a bill to Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 that would have required children younger than 18 years old to wear a helmet while on the slopes. Brown vetoed the bill, and efforts to enact a helmet-use law in the state have stalled. While Vail Resorts required all its employees to wear helmets while on the job back in 2009, some extreme events like the Winter X Games still don't mandate helmet use.

But many people seem to have learned the benefits of the protective headgear, Spees said. It only took him one crash to convert from a hat to a helmet.

"There's still a lot of people on the slopes with beanies, but the number of helmet sales and rentals has gone up. The percentage of people without helmets is getting narrower," Spees said.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Feb 1, 2013 08:05PM Published Feb 1, 2013 08:00PM Copyright 2013 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.