Should Plastic Helmets Be Mandatory?

Advancing Snowboarding with Plastics

Every so often, tragic accidents in winter sports elevate public discussions of ski helmets—particularly debates on whether wearing them should be mandatory.

International data show that although head injuries account for no more than 15 percent of injuries to skiers and snowboarders overall, they are accountable for an estimated 87 percent of deaths. In a recent interview, National Ski Areas Association researcher Jason Shealy, who studies ski and snowboard-related injuries, noted that helmets cut the incidence of head injuries by 30 to 50 percent.

Fortunately, breakthroughs in the use of innovative plastic materials and new designs are making the latest helmet models stronger, lighter and more aesthetically appealing – even to the young and occasionally reckless.

Helmets in History

While we tend to think of helmets as standard safety gear, it hasn’t always been that way. One of the first noted appearances of protective headgear occurred in 1896, when Lafayette College football halfback George Barclay began using earpieces held together with leather harness straps to protect his ears.

The most significant advancements in helmet innovation didn’t come until plastic resins appeared on the scene. In 1939, the first plastic helmet was introduced by the John T. Riddell Company of Chicago. The new plastic helmets proved to be stronger, lighter, and more durable than their leather predecessors.

Today’s Yolk Helmet

Today’s breakthroughs continue to rely on creative new plastic materials. The Yolk soft helmet, designed by Gregory Scott from the University of New South Wales, is an example of a winter sports helmet designed with plastics that combines function with fashion.

Though not yet in commercial production, Yolk’s developers claim that under regular use, this flexible helmet will move, bend and conform to the wearer’s head. The helmet technology utilizes a semi-rigid liner and Kevlar® skin which is impregnated with a shear thickening fluid. When the helmet is subjected to severe impact, the fluid inside uses the impact energy to instantaneously transform into a rigid shell. The protective shell then disperses and absorbs the impact, helping to protect the wearer’s skull and brain from injury. The helmet returns to its flexible state almost immediately.

What’s more, Yolk’s innovative design will allow the user to plug in a two-way radio, music player, or mobile phone to the integrated headphones and controls built into the helmet. For the fashion conscious, Yolk can be fitted with a choice of skins, which can be stretched over the helmet liner, to match the wearer’s personal style.

Should it Be Law?

The National Ski Areas Association in the United States urges skiers and riders to wear a helmet, but until recently, helmet use was uncommon and not widely enforced. Some resorts, consumer groups and sports associations have proposed mandatory helmet laws. What do you think?