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The latest in fashionable skiwear: safety helmets

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Matt Sharp, Courtney Eckhoff, and Johanne Skelley sport their helmets as they ride the chairlift up to the summit at Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado. (Photo by Mikaela Conley/CNS)

When Julianne Sweeney stood in front of the stacks of colorful ski helmets in the Darkside Snowboards shop, she found herself astounded at the extent of her choices. There was the Red Hi-Fi, Giro Omen, K2 Moxie and Bern Muse, to name just a few.

Although she’d been skiing since the age of 3, Sweeney never considered buying a helmet until she was 22. It wasn’t the safety benefits but the prospect of cool, fashionable headgear that played music that finally pushed her to make the purchase.

“I was pleasantly surprised to see the range of styles, colors, brands and capabilities,” she says, recalling her shopping day in Stowe, Vt. “They had helmets that didn’t just protect your head but also carried a tune on your iPod.”

She chose the baby-blue Bern helmet that sported a front lip much like a newsboy cap, made especially for women.

“I wear it every time I hit the slopes now, whether I’m skiing or snowboarding,” Sweeney says. “It keeps me much warmer and provides a peace of mind that I was lacking before. Plus, it looks cool.”

Helmets have long been a mandatory safety accessory in other sports, but they have never been required for skiers. Still, helmets have, at last, become increasingly trendy and popular among skiers in the last few years—not so much for safety reasons but for reasons of style. The National Ski Areas Association has noted a significant increase in skiers wearing head protection during the past five years, from about 25 percent during the 2002-03 season to 43 percent in 2007-08.

But will the increase lead to safer skiing? Helmets reduce head injuries, but some suggest they could cause skiers to become more reckless on the slopes and be distracted by the musical accessories.

Geraldine Link, director of public policy at the NSAA, notes that while helmet use has certainly increased significantly over the past five years, fatalities have remained consistent. In some fatalities, the protection of a helmet is overpowered by the severity of the accident itself.

“To sum up our position on helmets: Go ahead and wear a helmet, but ski and ride as if you’re not wearing one,” Link says. “They are important, but they are your second line of defense. Skiing and riding in a controlled and responsible manner is paramount.”

A study by Jasper Shealy, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who has studied ski-related injuries for 30 years, showed the use of helmets has decreased overall head-related injuries 30 to 50 percent. Because there has been a market for fashion, many people are buying helmets to fit in with style. They lessen their head-injury risk while also staying trendy and keeping up with the style on the mountain.

When Courtney Eckhoff moved to Colorado, she noticed all her friends protecting their heads on the mountain.

“Everyone was getting one, and hats are itchy,” says Eckhoff, a 25-year-old graduate student. “I bought a Giro helmet and started to wear it every time I skied.” Fortunately for Eckhoff, she had bought it a few months before she hit a jump, fell and slammed her head on ice. She suffered a concussion, but doctors said it would have been much worse had she not been wearing her helmet.

“Before, it was a matter of function over fashion—focused on protection more than comfort and style,” says Cris Dow, a 28-year-old expert skier who grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. People will now wear helmets because they are more comfortable and look cooler than in past years, he says.

Before, Dow had owned a helmet for racing purposes, but now, he owns a freestyle helmet, which is lighter with a more eye-appealing design. He can even take advantage of the helmet’s music capabilities, something that didn’t even exist in helmets five years ago.

“Sometimes I will listen to music when I am tree skiing up at Jay Peak,” Dow says. “I like something fast-paced, like NOFX. I focus on weaving through the trees, and the music can put you in a rhythm, like you are watching a ski video.”

Brett Newcomb also wore a helmet before one was able to ski with the wind in his face and music in his ears. Having slalom raced in middle school and high school, Newcomb became accustomed to helmets at an early age. While skiing at Mount Tremblant in Canada, Newcomb went off a 15-foot drop he didn’t see on an unmarked trail. Hours later, he woke up with a severe concussion and memory loss in a Montreal hospital. Just like Eckhoff, his helmet helped avoid a more dismal outcome.

“If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet,” Newcomb says, nine years after the accident, “the doctor told me I would’ve had 99 percent brain damage or would’ve been dead.”

“People are starting to think that helmets are practical because they’re now comfortable, warm, fashionable and have music capabilities,” he continues. “I’m really not sure why now, but it kind of goes along with the mentality that everybody’s doing it.”

Piche’s Ski and Sport Shop in Gilford, N.H., has sold helmets for more than two decades, long before everybody was doing it.

“It used to be seen as an embarrassment if you wore a helmet,” said Bob Buldoc of Piche’s, who had just sold a snowboard helmet before he picked up the call. “Now it’s an embarrassment and you’re out of place if you don’t wear one.”

Buldoc, who used to own Piche’s before handing the business down to his son, has worked in the ski shop for more than half a century. He has observed the rising helmet trend as his shelves have become full of the new, stylish equipment. Before, when only racers wore helmets, they were like football helmets: heavy, clunky and hot. Ski-equipment companies have made the headgear more appealing to a general audience with different colors and designs.

“I thought we were at our saturation point last year in selling helmets,” Buldoc said. “But this year, sales are just increasing more and more.”

When talking about the new fad of fashionable headgear, Dow breaks it down simply: “I see ski helmets in the same light as hybrid or ‘green’ vehicles. If you make them functional, comfortable, with cool features and don’t make them look stupid, people will actually use them.”

E-mail: mac2276@columbia.edu