JEFFERSONVILLE, Vt. — Dr. Robert Williams doesn't have to rely on his medical knowledge when it comes to urging skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets. He has firsthand experience.
Williams crashed on his mountain bike six years ago and suffered internal injuries, but his head wasn't hurt because he was wearing a helmet. That got him thinking about another favorite sport and how many head injuries could be prevented if more skiers wore helmets.
Now, the pediatric anesthesiologist and avid skier is crusading to persuade more people on the slopes to buckle up — their chin straps, that is.
As a critical care specialist at Vermont's Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and medical adviser to the ski patrol at Smugglers' Notch, he's seen a lot of head injuries and read the research.
If skiers and snowboarders wore helmets, 7,700 head injuries — 44 percent of those that occur nationally — could be prevented or reduced in severity each year, according to a 1999 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report.
"The medical literature is very clear on this, helmets are an effective deterrent strategy," said Williams, who is also an associate professor at the University of Vermont's College of Medicine.
So the 52-year-old and his organization, the Vermont Snow Sports Research Team — a collaboration between the UVM College of Medicine and Vermont's Children's Hospital — set out six years ago to promote helmet use at Smugglers' Notch.
"If we can prove in a pilot resort how high we can get the helmet use rates, then we could estimate, say if we got to 90 percent, we could estimate if everybody adopted that program nationally the thousands and thousands of head injuries that we could prevent," Williams said.
They counted the number of helmet wearers in lift lines, handed out information and cool stickers and raffled off free helmets for kids.
Posters reading "ski like a local, wear a helmet" adorn the walls of the ski lodges, ski patrollers and instructors are encouraged to wear helmets as role models, and the resort replaced photographs on its Web site and in its literature with helmet wearing skiers and riders.
Six years later, the results are visible.
Now 90 percent of children at Smugglers' Notch wear helmets, up from 60 percent in the winter of 2002-03, according to the team.
Seventy percent of adults targeted at Smugglers now wear helmets, up from 30 percent six years ago. The numbers are based on more than 75,000 observations over six years, Williams said.
Adults are a harder sell, said Lisa Schnell of Burlington, a lifelong skier. The 46-year-old started wearing a helmet four years ago, after her husband bought her one because she skis fast. At first, she worried about not being able to hear, or stay warm, but says now neither was a problem.
"I love it," she said. "My ears are warmer. They're extremely comfortable."
It took hitting a tree and getting staples in his head for Alex Friend of Burlington to be swayed, even though he knew Williams and about the program.
"I was really lucky," the 45-year-old said.
But for some younger skiers and riders, it's become the norm — like wearing a seat belt.
"I just knew that it was a smart thing to do," said 15-year-old Hayley Wilson of Milton. Her friend, fellow snowboarder Bailey Crawford, another 15-year-old from Milton, doesn't feel right without one. "I like wearing it. When I don't, I feel nervous."
But Williams wants to be sure that helmets don't give skiers and riders license to be extreme or behave irresponsibly.
"Our message is it's an effective strategy in reducing the incidences of traumatic brain injury associated with skiing, however, it's only part of the message. Personal responsibility is the most important thing," he said.