Skiing: One way to keep a cool head

Time was, ski helmets were for children and wimps. But research shows they aid safety. And to cap it all, they look good
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The Independent Travel

Anyone who skis in a jacket bought from a high-street store more than a dozen years ago and baggy snowboarder trousers must expect to be ignored on the slopes at best, at worst, scorned. Nobody has ever complimented me on my mix-but-not-match outfit, nor inquired where I bought any article of clothing or accessory. I was a sartorial non-starter - until last month.

Anyone who skis in a jacket bought from a high-street store more than a dozen years ago and baggy snowboarder trousers must expect to be ignored on the slopes at best, at worst, scorned. Nobody has ever complimented me on my mix-but-not-match outfit, nor inquired where I bought any article of clothing or accessory. I was a sartorial non-starter - until last month.

Soon after Christmas, I acquired a new piece of skiwear. The effect was dramatic. Even French ski guides, traditionally far too impressed by their own appearance to recognise any sense of style in others, couldn't hide their admiration. One picked up my new acquisition, turned it in his hand, and pronounced it " superbe". What was this beautiful thing? A crash helmet. Or, as a liftman at La Plagne described it, bellowing as I headed up the slope, a " jolie casque".

Although the attention was gratifying, I had not acquired the helmet to impress - ridicule seemed a more likely response than approval. True, the choice of the particular model was not careless: having seen the matt-black-finish, Italian-made Boeri Chop Iron Helmet in the Snow+Rock catalogue, I would have been reluctant to wear any other. (In the event, my head was already so swelled - even before French ski guides started crowding around - that Snow+Rock's sizes couldn't stretch that far: the importer had to supply an extra-large model.)

No. What actually prompted this interest in helmets was the safety issue - and in particular, the death on New Year's Day of a British teenager who crashed into a tree at the US resort of Heavenly.

Although helmets are now commonplace on small children in European resorts, an adult wearing one remains a rare sight. In the US, however, things are different: as long ago as November 1998, US Ski magazine reported that "helmets are the fastest-growing segment in the winter accessories market, with adult sales leading the charge". The unfortunate deaths of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono in skiing accidents the previous winter had given impetus to the trend, as did the foundation of the Team Wendy helmet company, set up by Wendy Moore's family following her death after a fall at the Californian resort of Mammoth in 1997.

Research by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, published early last year, made a persuasive argument for wearing a helmet. It studied the 17,500 head injuries associated with skiing and snowboarding in 1997 and concluded that the use of a helmet could have prevented or reduced the severity of 44 per cent of them. It also quoted a Swedish study which found that the incidence of head injuries among skiers wearing helmets was 50 per cent lower than for those without them. Finally, the commission estimated that "helmet use could prevent about 11 skiing- and snowboarding-related deaths annually".

Case proven? Not yet, apparently. Last month, The New York Times quoted Jasper Shealy of the Rochester Institute of Technology (who has researched ski injuries since the Seventies) as saying that the commission's study was "somewhat optimistic". He maintained that since 90 per cent of fatally injured skiers die of "high-speed impact", commercially available helmets (for which no official US safety standard yet exists) would not be "of any great assistance" to the victims. The same article raised one of the two commonly quoted fears about helmets - that they may encourage risk-taking. The other is that, by impairing vision and hearing, they may make wearers less aware of dangerous situations.

To judge the protective efficacy of the Boeri helmet was, I felt, beyond my capabilities - a feeling confirmed by studying the safety standard which was set for ski helmets in 1998 by the Snell Memorial Foundation, an independent US testing body whose specifications are set down in a document littered with technical drawings and such terms as "anatomical Frankfort planes" and "flat anvil impacts". I was also reluctant to try skiing head first into a tree at 15mph, which is thought to be the maximum speed at which ski helmets can offer effective protection. So my test was restricted to the factors of comfort and convenience.

The Boeri helmet passed the test with ease. It is so comfortable and light that since I first wore it, I have never skied without it. The pudding-basin shape - it looks like something a despatch rider would have used in the Fifties - does not restrict vision at all. True, the detachable ear flaps do make hearing those fast-descending skiers behind more difficult; but in cold conditions, when wearing the helmet has been a comfort, I have been reluctant to detach them. (A fellow helmet-wearer suggested that I may want to do so later in the season - when, ultimately, switching to a ventilated model may be advisable.)

My affection for the helmet is no doubt increased by the admiration it has stimulated. Nothing wrong with that, says Team Wendy's Halley Moore, president of the company set up in the wake of her sister's death. "Skiers and snowboarders are definitely vain, so it's important that helmets look good," she says. "Think how much they spend on outfits, goggles and sunglasses; they're not going to wear something that spoils their style." So the original Team Wendy models, which are like parachutists' helmets but with Fifties flourishes, are available in a dozen different colours, half of them muted shades for snowboarders, the others bright enough to appeal to skiers.

The company is now working on a new multi-sport, winter-and-summer model. It will, says Moore, conform with the demanding Snell specifications for helmet design. And, in the near future, she hopes there will be agreement in the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) on an official US safety standard. "They've been working on that for seven years," Moore says. "At the last ballot on a specification, there was just a single negative vote."

She is optimistic that a standard will finally be set in the late summer. Then, skiers need have no qualms about choosing a helmet for its looks. And, once helmets become a fashion item, nobody will give me a second look on the slopes.

The Boeri Chop Iron helmet costs £69.95 from Snow+Rock (01932 570070). It is essential that safety helmets fit properly: for local stockists contact the importer, Specialist Optical (01753 888411; specialistsport@yahoo.com). For Team Wendy (00 1 216 249 4488 or use their website at; www.teamwendy.com)

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