University of Vermont

Physician Careers

Williams and PHAT Team Discuss Truth about Ski Helmets and Program Expansion

Parent and child wearing helmets on ski slope

With plenty of recent snowfall and midway through the 2012-13 ski season, many skiers and riders have been getting out on the slopes, some with and without helmets. PHAT (Protect Your Head at All Times/Protect Your Head on All Terrain), a ski helmet advocacy program, has had a strong presence at ski areas across the state and beyond for more than a decade. This year, the program has launched a partnership with other sport groups where helmets are used as part of an expansion to a year ‘round program called PHAT 4 All Seasons.

Supported by Fletcher Allen in partnership with the UVM College of Medicine and the Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen, PHAT’s partners also include the National Ski Patrol, the Vermont Ski Areas Association, and several ski areas, in addition to Okemo, including Smuggler’s Notch, Bolton Valley, Bromley, Jay Peak, Mad River Glen, Stowe, and Cochran’s. Mount Snow, Stratton, and Sugarbush have supported the program in the past.

Recently, PHAT co-founder Robert Williams, M.D., pediatric anesthesiologist at Fletcher Allen Health Care and University of Vermont associate professor of anesthesiology, discussed ski helmet facts in a “HealthSource” radio interview featured on the Fletcher Allen website.

A meta-analysis study conducted by investigators at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and published in the November 2012 Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery showed that helmets are lifesavers and do not increase the risk of injury. However, despite these statistics, there is still resistance to wearing a helmet, most often in older skiers who are more set in their ways, says Williams. “The title of the article says it all and in much stronger terms than we have used in the past – 'Helmets Save Lives of Skiers and Snowboarders,'” Williams says.

Vermont is doing better than the nation in using helmets. “We have a pretty high penetration use, somewhere around 75 percent, which is better than nationwide,” he says in the “HealthSource” interview.

Though helmet use is increasing, Williams explains that he and other helmet advocates will not be satisfied until universal helmet use is achieved. “Head injuries are unique, with the potential for life-long morbidity,” he says. “We know that there are about 8,000 head injuries in the U.S. that could be prevented. They’re such an effective tool in preventing head injuries.” In addition to saving health care costs, preventing or reducing the severity of head injuries also ensures better well-being for individuals and their families.

Now more than 11 years old, the PHAT program likely has something to do with Vermont’s higher rate of use. The PHAT team employs what Williams calls a “several-pronged approach” that includes a website; discussing and sharing information about the pros and cons of helmet use; and finally, going to resorts where the team sets up a table, performs demonstrations, provides information on helmets, and gets the word out – in a positive non-coercive, non-threatening manner – that ski helmets are a really good idea. “In fact,” says Williams “that it’s such a good idea that no skier or snowboarder should go out without a helmet. We particularly encourage role models such as parents and uniformed ski professionals to set the standard by promoting responsible helmet use.”

Okemo Mountain Resort provides an example of the support the PHAT program has gained in Vermont. On February 12, 2013, the resort hosted its annual PHAT Tuesday celebration.

“Okemo has made a point of having the PHAT team join us every year for what we tout as ‘PHAT Tuesday’ – our unique version of the Tuesday in February when most resorts are celebrating Mardi Gras,” says Bonnie MacPherson, director of publication relations at Okemo. “They have become a regular part of our celebration of the National Ski Areas Association Safety Awareness Week in January. The PHAT team provides us with a non-coercive way to educate our guests about helmet safety.”

The program plans to continue this approach as it expands to PHAT 4 All Season. First among the new groups to join the program are Burlington-Vt.-based Local Motion, a bike advocacy group and VASA, Vermont’s All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) advocacy group. “Both groups advocate for helmets when participating in their sports,” says PHAT’s Karen Williams. In this new iteration, the program’s members aim to have a year ‘round presence throughout Vermont and beyond. “We are working at present to reflect this in our website and future events,” says Williams.

The PHAT program, which receives financial support from the Vermont Health Foundation, the Children’s Miracle Network, the Vermont Department of Health, and Kohl’s department stores, also distributes informational materials to physicians’ offices, schools and through wellness fairs and community recreation groups.