Once a rare sight amongst American skiers and snowboarders, helmets are ubiquitous enough that now what’s weird is to see someone on the slopes without protective headgear.
An estimated 78% of skiers and snowboarders on US slopes wore helmets during the 2014/2015 ski season, according to the National Ski Areas Association (pdf). That’s up from 25% in 2002, the first year on record. If this pace keeps up, nearly everyone on the mountain will be wearing helmets in five years.
New Jersey is the only state in the US to require ski helmet use, and only for people younger than 18 at that. This means that the mass adoption of helmets has occurred voluntarily.
In the ski season following the skiing-related deaths of singer Sonny Bono and Robert F. Kennedy’s son Michael Kennedy, both of whom died of head injuries sustained in accidents that occurred less than a week apart during the 1997-98 season, about 300,000 alpine helmets were sold in the US, according to SnowSports Industries America a ski-equipment industry group.
After a period of rapid growth in the decade that followed—helped along by additional cautionary examples of high-profile accidents, like the one that killed the actress Natasha Richardson in 2009—annual sales are now more than four times that of the 1998-99 season. Last year, retailers sold about 1.3 million helmets for a combined value of $120 million.
A 2012 meta-study concluded that helmets decrease both the risk and severity of head injuries while skiing and snowboarding. The study also found that contrary to some concerns that sporting protective headgear might make people more inclined to take risks, wearing helmets does not cause people to traverse mountains more aggressively than not wearing one.
More recently, in 2014, a study of 17 years of injuries at the Sugarbush ski resort in Vermont found that the rise in helmet use was followed by a significantly reduced incidence and proportion of head injuries of all kinds among skiers. (Snowboarding injuries were excluded.)
But the rise in helmet use hasn’t translated into a significant reduction of downhill-sport fatalities. Deaths related to skiing and snowboarding in-bounds fluctuate from year to year but are little changed from rates seen a decade ago, according to data from the National Ski Areas Association. (The data exclude deaths not directly related to typical recreational skiing, such as having a heart attack while on a chair lift.)
A change in mountain culture may be one reason behind this, some experts have hypothesized, as resort operators install bigger terrain parks and as mountaingoers become more willing to take risks, whether they have a helmet on or not.
Either way, the data suggest there’s no substitute for good judgment when you’re out on the slopes.