BANGOR, Maine — When a Husson University student died while skiing at Sugarloaf on Tuesday, the accident bucked a trend that has been growing at ski resorts across the nation.
Stephen Colvin, a 21-year-old from Hoosick, N.Y., was not wearing a helmet.
According to published reports and a trade organization, helmet use on the nation’s slopes is at an all-time high, with 67 percent of skiers and snowboarders wearing helmets during the most recent survey period.
And while Colvin’s death may not have been prevented if he had been wearing a helmet, ski industry insiders have been encouraging the use of helmets for years.
Colvin was skiing an advanced trail when he apparently lost control and veered into woods. Police have concluded their portion of the investigation and find nothing suspicious, according to Carrabassett Valley Police Chief Mark Lopez, but the case won’t be closed until the state medical examiner’s office releases its findings.
Calls to the state medical examiner’s office weren’t immediately returned Wednesday, but Lopez said the cause of death likely will be determined as “blunt force trauma to the head.”
“There’s no reason to suspect that there was any alcohol or anything involved,” Lopez said.
Ethan Austin, Sugarloaf communications director, said the death was the first at Sugarloaf since January 2012.
Data from the National Ski Area Association, the trade association for ski area owners, indicates that the vast majority of skiers and snowboarders now wear helmets. Even 15 years ago, that wasn’t the case.
According to a 2011-12 study, 67 percent of all skiers and riders wore helmets that season. That’s up from just 25 percent of skiers and riders who wore helmets during the 2002-2003 season.
A further breakdown according to the group:
— 91 percent of children age 9 or younger wore helmets in 2011-12.
— 81 percent of children between 10 and 14 wore helmets.
— 78 percent of adults older than 65 wore helmets.
The National Ski Area Association did point out, however, that those between the ages of 18 and 24 have the lowest rate of helmet use — just 53 percent in 2011-12. That percentage, while modest, still marked a 194 percent increase over the 18 percent rate of helmet use recorded nine years earlier.
Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Ski Maine Association, said that New England skiers and snowboarders typically use helmets at a higher rate than the national average, and his organization encourages their use. But he said wearing a helmet can only do so much to keep a skier or rider safe.
“It appears as though helmet use hasn’t really changed the [nationwide] fatality ratio,” Sweetser said. “Helmet use has increased and it’s a common accessory. But it’s not the panacea to prevent a serious accident like [the one that caused Colvin’s death].
Statistics show that roughly 10 million Americans ski or snowboard each year in the U.S., with approximately 600,000 injuries reported annually, according to a 2012 study by Johns Hopkins University. Up to 20 percent of those were head injuries caused mostly by hitting inanimate objects such as trees or the ground. Twenty-two percent of those head injuries were severe enough to cause loss of consciousness, concussion or worse injuries. Often the injured were not wearing helmets, according to the study.
“Anecdotally, it seems that helmets have been most beneficial among the minor scrapes and scratches,” Sweetser said. “That’s a benefit and that’s a good thing. But the stats from the NSAA show that the fatality rate has been steady for years. Part of [the reason] is that when those tragic accidents happen there is a tremendous impact.”
In a fact sheet last updated in 2012, the association said that over the previous decade, an average of 41.5 people died per year while snowboarding or skiing. In 2011-12, 54 fatalities were reported nationwide. In those 54 incidents, only 18 were not wearing helmets.
The NSAA appears to be the major source of statistics on ski-related injuries and deaths in the U.S., which was the subject of a Businesweek article that examined the industry’s apparent conflict of interest tracking its own safety record.
Austin said Sugarloaf strongly encourages both guests and employees to wear helmets, and said that participants in some classes that take place in wooded glades or in terrain parks are required to wear them. Austin thinks the resort’s overall helmet-use percentage is well above the national average, and said it may approach 99 percent among young skiers enrolled in classes. He said that among the rank-and-file Sugarloafer, helmet use may be as high as 85 to 90 percent.
“It used to be that when someone went by, you’d say, ‘Hey, that guy’s wearing a helmet,’” Austin said. “Now, when that doesn’t happen [and someone isn’t wearing a helmet], you notice that.”
Sweetser said a skier or snowboarder can buy a serviceable helmet for $30 or $40, with better models costing much more than that. Many ski areas also rent helmets to their guests. Sugarloaf’s Austin said the least expensive helmet in the on-mountain ski shop is $100, with models available for as much as $400. But he said skiers can rent helmets for just $10 a day.
And he said that those who use helmets find out that they’re useful not just in preventing injury.
“Skiers and snowboarders have found that helmets were warm hats,” Sweetser said. “They’re comfortable and they’re warm.”
Some resorts have made helmets mandatory among some employees and guests, but Sweetser said he’s not aware of any Maine resorts doing so, except during some youth instruction.
According to published reports, Intrawest, which owns resorts in the U.S. and Canada, began requiring some guests to use helmets in the wake of the death of actress Natasha Richardson in 2009. Among those resorts: Mont Tremblant in Quebec, where Richardson was injured, Steamboat in Colorado and Stratton in Vermont.
Other resorts, including Vail in Colorado, have implemented or are considering requiring their employees to wear helmets in certain situations.
Since 2002, the National Ski Area Association has promoted the use of helmets through its “Lids on Kids” campaign.
According to the group, the use of helmets can reduce head injuries between 30 and 50 percent, and may make the difference between a major and minor head injury.
At the same time, the group says that skiing and snowboarding are relatively safe activities.
“Skiers and snowboarders have less than a one in 1 million chance of being seriously injured or dying on the slopes,” the National Ski Area Association website states. “Serious head injuries account for only 2.6 percent of overall skiing/snowboarding injuries.”
Sweetser said Maine resorts are typically no more or less dangerous than those nationwide. The National Ski Area Association reported that in 2011-12, for every million ski visits nationwide, there were 1.06 fatalities. Sweetser said that with Maine’s annual 1.3 million skier/snowboarder visits, one fatality can be expected each year or two.