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Ski helmets and brain injuries: a mixed verdict so far

January 3, 2014 Brain Injury

On behalf of Rosenberg, Minc, Falkoff & Wolff, LLP

The recent traumatic brain injury suffered by Formula One racing star Michael Schumacher is very much on the minds of many New York ski enthusiasts as they head off to their favorite slopes to take advantage of this winter’s record snowfalls. One element of Schumacher’s injury at a French ski resort that has many skiers concerned is the fact that he was wearing a helmet. However, that safeguard was no match for a rock that he hit on an “ungroomed” area of the slopes.

Although more American snowboarders and skiers say they are wearing helmets than at any time in history (about 70 percent), the National Ski Areas Association reports no decrease in brain injuries or fatalities caused by snow sports. Experts point to a simple reason for this phenomenon. While people are taking better precautions, they are also taking greater risks on the slopes – going faster, higher and, like Schumacher, off the beaten path. Chalk this up in part to advances in equipment that allow faster, more dangerous moves and the fact that ski areas are now more likely to provide “extreme terrain” options.

While ski helmets may not prevent traumatic brain injuries, evidence has shown that they are useful in preventing those that are not as serious, such as skull fractures and lacerations. Some research shows that these less serious injuries can be cut by as much as half when the skier or snowboarder is wearing a helmet. While Schumacher is by no means out of the woods, his physicians say the only reason he is still alive is because he was wearing a helmet.

So far New Jersey is the only state to require ski helmets at all, and that is only for people younger than 18, so we are a long way from helmet use being mandatory. However, experts say that the larger problem is a “snow-sports culture that celebrates risk.” While resorts and other winter playgrounds that celebrate snow sports are competing for visitors by offering more potentially dangerous areas to accommodate this appetite for risk, they also need to be concerned about the potential liability when someone is hurt or killed on their property. While skiers, like all sports enthusiasts, are responsible for their own safety, businesses that cater to these enthusiasts also bear the responsibility for providing as safe an area as reasonably possible.

Source: The New York Times, “Ski Helmet Use Isn’t Reducing Brain Injuries” Kelley McMillan, Dec. 31, 2013