White of the US competes at the Winter Olympic Games in Bardonecchia
Dylan Martinez  /  Reuters file
U.S. Olympic athlete Shaun White wears a helmet as he competes during qualification in the men's half pipe snowboarding competition at the Torino 2006 Winter Olympic Games.
updated 2/22/2006 10:31:58 AM ET 2006-02-22T15:31:58

Helmets greatly reduce the risk of head injuries among skiers and snowboarders, a Norwegian study found.

Researchers hope their study, along with helmet-clad Olympic athletes like Shaun “The Flying Tomato” White, will lead to greater use of protective headgear on the slopes.

“Do as the Olympians do,” said study co-author Dr. Roald Bahr of the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences in Oslo. “Wear a helmet, even if you’re not an elite skier or snowboarder — especially if you’re not.”

Some critics argue helmets may lead to accidents by giving daredevil skiers a false sense of security or cause more neck injuries because of the weight of the headgear.

The study found that while risk takers were more likely to wear helmets, helmet wearers overall were 60 percent less likely to suffer head injuries. It also found a lower risk of neck injuries with helmet wear, but that finding was not statistically significant, meaning it could have been due to chance.

The study looked at data on more than 6,000 skiers and snowboarders at eight Norwegian ski resorts during the 2002 winter season. It appears in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

With about 39 fatalities a year, skiing and snowboarding are safer than bicycling or swimming, which have higher death rates, according to the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group.

Helmet use is increasing, the group said, with one-third of skiers and snowboarders surveyed last season wearing helmets, compared with 28 percent the year before.

Over the past five years, almost 40 percent of skiers and snowboarders who died in ski accidents wore helmets, said Jasper Healy, professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology, who does similar research but was not involved in the new study.

“I do wear a helmet,” Healy said. “But if you hit a tree, don’t think a helmet will make the difference in being alive or being dead. It won’t.”

Dr. Pietro Tonino, chief of sports medicine at Loyola University Health System, said the study will lead parents to buy helmets for their children. But he predicted the Olympics will persuade young people to wear them.

“You can still be cool even when you’re wearing a helmet,” Tonino said

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