Rant 2: Helmet Laws for Skiers

by Brian Wilson, on 5/9/99

(Read a personal description of Backblaze here.)

When I learned to ski in 1983, if a person of any age was wearing a helmet (also called a "brain bucket") on the ski slopes it meant something specific. It meant that the person wearing the helmet was NOT a recreational skier, but instead was a competitive ski racer, and furthermore was probably in an organized competition that day. Any skier wearing a helmet drew stares and whispers in the lift line. This was still the situation until about 5 years ago, when the very first recreational skiers began wearing helmets on the slopes. In the last 5 years the percentage of recreational skiers wearing helmets has risen steadily, with the most dramatic increase among children. I estimate that this year, 1999, over half the children under age 16 I saw on my ski epic were wearing ski helmets. Even my long time ski buddies, some with over 25 years of skiing behind them, are talking about wearing a helmet on the slopes.

This is the important year. The beginning of the end. "The Shift" is happening.

Skiing is a surprisingly social sport, which you might not realize watching the half of skiing where people slide down the hill at mach 3. The other half of skiing is riding the chair lift up the hill. On a lift or gondola, you sit down next to other skiers for the 15 minute ride up, and more often than not you strike up a casual conversation. Out on my 86 day ski epic, I talked to a LOT of skiers wearing helmets. I talked with skiers wearing helmets who were 4 years old, and I talked to skiers who were 70 years old wearing helmets. And out there, somewhere in Utah or Colorado, it became clear to me that this is the year that "The Shift" in thinking had occurred.

"The Shift" is what I call the mass hysteria, the mass group thinking that takes over suddenly, when 95 percent of the population suddenly and ferociously agrees on something that they never cared deeply about before. And what comes next is legislation to force the last 5 percent to bend to their will. To the population caught up in "The Shift", this sudden new conviction is as strong as religion, and anyone in the last 5 percent who even SUGGESTS a calm debate or alternative is treated like a heretic who should be burned at the stake. If you are getting angry or self righteous at this rant because you suspect where it is going, then you have fallen prey to the mass thinking already. Trust me-> my point here is NOT what you think it is.

Let's take an example of "The Shift" from recent history that is unrelated to skiing or ski helmets. A really good example of "The Shift" is child seats for cars. I grew up climbing all over the inside of my parent's enormous 1972 green Ford station wagon while it rumbled along. Our family drove across the United States from Oregon to Pennsylvania and back several times, and we never had a child seat for those of us under 5 years old. Now listen closely: my parents never THOUGHT this was an enormous risk to our health, and neither did WE, and neither did a single neighbor or person we met on the road. NOT ONE. But now a child riding free outside of a child seat or even a seat belt is an unconscionable horror. In fact, it is a crime; it is against the law in all 50 states. And the universal thinking is that it would be criminal child endangerment to drive even 100 yards without the children secured in child seats.

For this rant, it isn't important how many children's lives are saved each year by child seats. Do you know that number? Probably not. What is important is that NOBODY cared before, and now EVERYBODY does. In other words, "The Shift" occurred. What happened? Even if the mass thinking today is "the right thing to think", why did all those parents not care about their children 15 years ago? And the belief has taken on a fevered pitch that you have to admit is WAY past rational. Do you know how many children the child seats save per year? And do you care about the children that die in spite of being in child seats? You could save some of them by driving less, but that isn't important, is it? It's not really about children. It just feels so "right" to go along with the masses, and it feels even better to make that law forcing the last 5 percent of parents that didn't purchase car seats to do so.

At this point you are saying to yourself, "Brian thinks child seats are a bad idea?" No, child seats are a GREAT idea, and they save lives. That's not the point. The point is, why did this huge societal "Shift" in opinion occur, and why is it so ferocious that it ended in legislation to force the last 5 percent to comply with the will of the masses? What is it about human beings that we love being self righteous against small pockets of minority behavior that shouldn't be of significant concern?

Ok, back to helmets for skiers. If you objected to my examples of child car seats (which you probably did), then I just hope and pray you are a skier. Because helmets are available to you now, and when you ski YOU AREN'T WEARING ONE, ARE YOU? Why not? For my sake, please write down the answer and seal it in an envelope, because we are in the middle of "The Shift", and in 5 more years you will have changed your opinion so much that you wouldn't DREAM of skiing down a slope without a helmet. It would seem like inviting death, like suicide. The ACTUAL danger will not be any different than it is today, but you will PERCEIVE it as greater. Why? If nothing changed about skiing, then it must be that mass society "Shift" got to you, affected your perceptions until you fell in line and had the same NEW opinion as everyone else. Right? What other explanation is there?

Now, you might be part of the 1 percent of the population that is like me. If that is the case, I apologize for lumping you in with the rest of the mindless masses. I seem to be immune to "The Shift" in most cases. This isn't a blessing: I'm continually lamenting the loss of yet another freedom to "The Shift". Those caught up in the various crusades (anti-smoking, pro-seat belts, pro-motorcycle helmets, etc) joyously give away their freedoms, and seem happy to do it.

This year we are still early enough in "The Shift" that some helmet wearers had some very thoughtful insights. One 50 year old couple who were wearing helmets suggested that the highly publicized deaths of Sonny Bono and Kennedy last year, both by colliding with trees, contributed to the large rise in helmet use. But we are far enough along in "The Shift" that the truly mindless were coming out of the woodwork also. I rode up a lift in Winter Park Colorado with a woman and her 4 year daughter. The daughter was wearing a helmet, and the woman was not. The woman actually told me that she wished the government would pass a skier helmet law, so that she would be forced to wear a helmet just like she forced her daughter to wear one.

For a moment I lost the will to live, and I almost jumped off the lift.

I cannot STAND people who have this kind of attitude. It is not the government's job to force us to be "safer children". It is not the government's job to decide what is an acceptable risk for us personally, and what is not. If you want to wear a helmet while skiing, please do! It is a very good idea. I might choose to wear one also, depending on the conditions and where I plan to ski that day. But you and I need to accept the decision of the informed skier who chooses to feel the wind in their hair, and take the well known risk of going sans-helmet.

That applies today, it will apply tomorrow, and it will apply 50 years from now. Don't succumb to "The Shift", in which you suddenly change your opinion at the same time as the rest of the population does, and you hold your new opinion with religious fervor.

I realize this rant is hopeless; I am tilting at windmills. I predict that within 5 years there will be a skier helmet law for anyone under 18. Within 10 years, there will be a skier helmet law for everyone. And 20 years from now, on a ski slope, on a perfect day with a blue sky and perfect snow, I will irritate my friends by playing the heretic. While wearing my government mandated ski helmet, I will wish outloud that just for one run I could feel the wind in my hair.

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