ASPEN - Dr. Thomas Moore has given approximately 2,200 free ski helmets to kids in Crested Butte and the Roaring Fork Valley since 1995 and is happy to report it's getting tougher to find youngsters who don't already have a lid.
Moore, an orthopedist, started a private practice in Crested Butte in 1995, came into contact with a high number of skiers and snowboarders and became alarmed by the low level of helmet use. He took action by providing helmets to all first-graders in the Crested Butte school system, but he soon realized that wasn't enough.
"I started feeling bad because what if a second-grader fell and got hurt?" he said. So he started making the helmets available to kids through sixth grade and anyone older who requested them.
The key to the successful program in Crested Butte, where there is a lot of extreme skiing, was getting helmets accepted by some role models.
"I sort of made it, 'OK, if you're a good skier, you wear a helmet,'" Moore recalled from his Basalt office Friday. "I tried to embarrass parents, too - 'OK, if your kids are wearing helmets, why aren't you?'"
He opened a Basalt office in 1998 and started giving out 100 helmets to kids each November on a first-come, first-served basis. Lately, it's been getting slightly tougher to find takers for all 100 helmets. Maybe that is a good sign, Moore said, that many people already have helmets. Statistics bear that out.
The 2012 National Ski Areas Association Demographic Study showed that 67 percent of skiers and snowboarders nationwide wore helmets during the 2011-12 season. That was a 10 percent increase from the prior season. The Lakewood-based National Ski Areas Association is a national trade group for the ski industry.
Trends over the past decade indicate helmet use is becoming ingrained in ski culture.
"Helmet usage among those interviewed nationwide has increased 171 percent since the 2002-03 season, when only 25 percent of skiers and snowboarders were wearing a helmet at the time of being interviewed," the National Ski Areas Association's report said.
Helmet use has been greater in recent years at Aspen-Snowmass than at the national level. Aspen Skiing Co.'s surveys of guests show helmet use was at 76 percent in 2010-11 and 78.8 percent the following season, according to statistics provided by Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle.
In a survey earlier this season, 83.7 percent of customers at Aspen-Snowmass were putting a lid on it, according to Skico data.
A helmet won't save a life in all situations, as demonstrated in an accident on Aspen Mountain on Feb. 4. A skier who had stopped in Spar Gulch was hit by another skier, knocking her to the ground with such force that she suffered a traumatic brain injury that proved fatal, according to the Pitkin County Coroner's Office. Both women in the collision were wearing helmets. The survivor suffered only minor injuries.
While there are cases where a helmet doesn't help the victim of a ski crash, research indicates helmets reduce the severity and frequency of head injuries.
"Helmets can reduce head injuries by 30 to 50 percent and may be the difference between a major and minor injury," the National Ski Areas Association says on its website. "Helmets do have limitations. Helmets provide the most protection at slower speeds - but most of us ski and snowboard faster. Check your speed."
Skico implemented a policy for the 2011-12 season that all employees must wear helmets when working on the slopes. The company said it was a "safety driven" decision.
"I'm glad Aspen's doing that," Moore said.
Anyone who spends time on the slopes can recall times when they are glad they were wearing their helmet, he said. He believes they have prevented an untold number of injuries.
Skico mandated helmet use for all kids enrolled in ski-school classes starting in March 2002.
Moore said a glance at the crowd at any ski area shows helmet use has surged over time. There are so many helmet styles available now that it's a fashion statement for many kids and one that must be renewed every few years, he said.
The National Ski Areas Association's survey showed that at least two out of every three skiers and snowboarders in every age group 17 and younger wear ski helmets, as do those 35 and older. Use is highest among children 9 and younger, at 91 percent.
Use is lowest among 18- to 24-year-olds at 52 percent and among 25- to 34-year-olds at 59 percent.
More about ski-helmet use, especially among children, can be found at www.lidsonkids.org.