Head Case

They're geeky, a little cumbersome, and put a real cramp in that whole wind-through-your-hair sensation. But if a ski helmet can save your life, it's worth the fashion faux pas, right?

Many skiers and ski resorts seem to think so. Vail Resorts, which owns seven ski areas in Colorado, California and Nevada, started requiring its employees and kids under 12 taking group ski lessons to wear helmets during the 2009-10 season, and other companies have followed suit. Helmet use is also on the rise among skiers even when it's not required, according to a report issued by the National Ski Areas Association at the start of the 2010-11 ski season. Studies showed that 57 percent of skiers and riders wore helmets in the 2009-10 season, up from 48 percent the year before and just 25 percent in 2002-03.

You might expect that injury rates would have decreased in the past decade, what with so many more of us trying to protect the old egg. And in some ways, they have: Research shows that head injuries are 30 to 50 percent less likely to occur with helmet usage. But (and it's a big one), that decrease pertains mostly to less serious injuries such as cuts, bruises and mild concussions. Meanwhile, the incidence of on-mountain fatalities has stayed pretty constant over the past decade, despite so many more skiers and riders sporting nut buckets.

The takeaway? "We urge skiers and riders to wear a helmet," the report states, "but to ski or ride as if they are not wearing a helmet." In other words, your best tool for staying safe on the mountain isn't the helmet (though it helps), but the precious cargo it protects.