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PHAT Hats: Researcher's helmet
efforts change fashion and safety
on Vermont slopes

By Mike Noble and Jennifer Nachbur

These days, if you’re still wearing a knit pom-pom hat when you ski or ride,
you might as well be skiing on wooden boards. The latest craze is “PHAT” —
an innovative approach to changing on-slope fashion that’s increasing helmet
use at Vermont resorts at an astonishing rate — and it’s spreading to ski resorts

An acronym for Protect your Head at All Times and Protect Your Head on All
Terrain, PHAT is a youth-oriented campaign launched in 2002 by Dr. Robert
Williams, associate professor of anesthesiology and director of the Snow
Sports Research Team at UVM and Fletcher Allen. A pediatric anesthesiologist
at Fletcher Allen, Williams is an avid skier and snowboarder who concocted
the PHAT concept following a serious biking accident when he sustained
internal injuries, but no head trauma due to his helmet use.

Over the past five years, the Snow Sports Research Team has conducted
thousands of surveys and made more than 70,000 observations of helmet use
by skiers and snowboarders. Based on this research, the team designed a
promotional program to educate the skiing public on the positive benefits of
ski helmet use. Piloted at Smugglers' Notch Resort in Jeffersonville, Vt., and
supported by a grant from the Vermont Health Foundation at Fletcher Allen,
the program has been expanded to eight other Vermont ski resorts over the
past two years with assistance from the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

According to a 2004 Consumer Product Safety Commission study, more than
17,000 head injuries a year would be eliminated if every skier wore a helmet.
“That’s a lot of heartache, not to mention millions of dollars spent on medical
care and rehabilitation expenses, that could be prevented by the simple act of
strapping on a helmet every time a skier or rider hits the slopes,” says

Promoting helmet safety among youth

Featured in a January 2007 New York Times article, the PHAT program
requires resort involvement so that program coordinators can conduct “PHAT
Days” at the resort, where non-helmet-wearing youth learn about the benefits
of helmet use via free brochures and ski posters that promote helmet safety.
Children wearing helmets receive appealing PHAT-theme helmet stickers. The
resorts give out a PHAT brochure with each lift ticket sale. In some events, free
helmet raffles are held.

The program shows no sign of slowing down, even at the original survey site,
Smugglers’ Notch Resort, where last Saturday, the PHAT info table at the base
lodge had a “nice, steady flow” of visitors, according to President Bob
Mulcahy. “We have a very high percentage of helmet use, particularly among
children, and a lot of that is really due to Rob’s efforts,” said Mulcahy, who
introduced Williams to key contacts at the seven other Vermont ski resorts that
now also offer the program. “We encourage everyone to wear a helmet and tell
the kids “Bode Miller wears a helmet, so you should wear one!”

In December, Williams issued a nationwide challenge to all skiers and to the
ski industry to find a way to voluntarily increase helmet use and help reduce
both the rate and severity of head injuries, based on his team’s 2007 research
and pilot program, which resulted in a 90 percent helmet rate use in children at
Smugglers’ Notch.

“At Smugglers' Notch, among our most targeted groups of riders, the use rates
are approximately 70 percent for adults and 90 percent for children” said Tom
Delaney, research analyst in pediatrics, and a member of the team. “This
indicates to us that with a similar nationwide effort at educating the skiing
public on the advantage of ski helmets, we could achieve nearly universal ski
helmet use in a voluntary, non-coercive approach.”

Statistics back program goals

The Snow Sports Research Team will help appropriate organizations wanting
to take up the challenge by providing a starter kit with sample program

“Research papers in well-respected publications such as the Journal of the
American Medical Association indicate that ski helmets are effective in
decreasing the incidence of head injuries in both skiers and snowboarders,”
notes Williams. “Our team’s research indicates that a voluntary program of
education and self-responsibility can achieve much higher rates of helmet use
than currently observed nationwide.”

The team’s success rate is truly remarkable, especially when compared to
seemingly promising results from a 2006-07 National Ski Areas Association
survey of 138,919 ski resort visitors that reported 40 percent of respondents
were wearing a helmet when interviewed, up from 25 percent in 2002-03.

“This year, every skier and snowboarder should wear a helmet on the slopes,”
said Williams. “There are simply no excuses left for not eliminating
preventable head injuries while skiing and riding.”

This article was reprinted with permission from
The View at the University of Vermont.
PHAT, a youth-oriented campaign launched in 2002 by Dr. Robert Williams, associate professor of anesthesiology and director of the Snow Sports Research Team at UVM and Fletcher Allen, is catching on nationwide. Photo: Courtesy of Smugglers' Notch Resort