By Elliott Gould
As NASTAR racers wrap up their seasons at their home hills and head to Nationals at Steamboat, here’s something to wrap heads around: helmets.
When ski racing’s international governing body, the International Ski Federation (FIS), recently changed regulations, some parents and racers were left scratching their heads. Can the new noggin protectors really provide peace of mind? What about older helmets, like this one pictured from 2002?
Dr. Jasper Shealy, a Vermont-based expert in winter sports safety who’s spent the past 40 years doing a comprehensive study on snow injuries reported at Sugarbush, recently gave SkiRacing.com and NASTAR an exclusive perspective on what a helmet actually does.
Glancing Blows Versus Direct Impacts
Helmets offer protection from glancing blows, the most common kind of head injuries among NASTAR racers, says Dr. Shealy. “If you were traveling on a flat surface of some kind, lets say at 60 mph, and you fall, the impact speed of your head against the snow surface is not 60 miles per hour — it’s really just the speed of the drop,” he explains. “That’s the reason I think that helmets are so effective, because it protects you against those kinds of glancing blows.”
Brain Buckets of Before
The older a helmet is, the more unsafe it is, explains Shealy.
“When we looked at rental helmets, assuming a helmet did not take a significant impact, it could last around five to six years before it became less effective,” he says. “At some point, given that most helmets use Styrofoam or some other kind of rigid foam insulation for energy absorption, that material is going to deteriorate over time due to various ambient environmental influences — things like UV, chemicals, heat, etc.”
While Shealy says there isn’t a firm scientific basis for determining exactly when helmets should be replaced, he’d be wary of using a helmet more than five years old.
For NASTAR-racing families, is spending another $120 to $200 per head worth it? “My thinking is that, yeah, it’s going to cost more, but when you think about what a serious head injury might cost in terms of quality of life and just the medical cost of a traumatic brain injury, then it’s justified,” said Shealy.