Every time a celebrity is fatally injured in a skiing accident, more people start wearing helmets on the slopes, say industry officials who expect the head injury sustained by Natasha Richardson to accelerate that shift.
"Helmet use has been steadily going up, and these types of accidents tend to really draw attention to it and recalibrate people's thinking," said Bob Scales, who heads helmet production for manufacturer Giro. At the same time, manufacturers "continue to make helmets more comfortable" by reducing the weight and improving the fit.
Industry leaders say the deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy, son of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, after they crashed into trees in the winter of 1997-98 persuaded more people to buy helmets. Neither man was wearing a helmet, and Richardson, who was taking a private lesson on a beginner slope, apparently was not wearing one either.
Ski industry studies show helmet use increased from 25 percent in 2002-03 to 43 percent now.
"Wearing a helmet seems to be associated with anywhere from a 40- to 60-percent reduction in head injuries," said Dr. Robert Williams, who began the Vermont Snow Sports Research Team six years ago to promote helmet use. "Helmets are an idea whose time has really come now. There is no downside to wearing one."
The deaths of Bono and Kennedy prompted several states to consider laws requiring helmet use, but none of the legislation passed.
"The ski industry advocates the use of helmets and believes it should be a person's individual choice," said Scott Brandi, president of the Ski Areas of New York trade association. Use is encouraged through educational campaigns like a national one called Lids for Kids and incentives for purchases.
After six years of education efforts in his pilot program at the Smugglers' Notch resort in Vermont, Williams said, more than 70 percent of the season pass holders now wear helmets.
But some areas go beyond education, requiring skiers in terrain parks with jumps and obstacles, or children taking lessons, to wear helmets.
Bill Benneyan of the Mountain Creek resort in New Jersey said "any kids 12 and under in our lesson programs are required to wear a helmet, which we provide for free." Season pass holders and school groups are offered discounts to purchase helmets. And Hunter Mountain in the Catskills encourages helmet use by including them in every equipment rental package.
Helmets cost between $50 and $200. At Sno-Haus of Huntington, salesman James Larkin said about 75 percent of those who buy skis also buy helmets.
"We push people to buy helmets because there's a lot of people on the mountain going fast," he said. "But plenty of people who work here have cracked helmets just hitting the snow. Your head still gets rattled, but the helmet protects you and you're glad you're walking away."