Tips on staying safe on the slopes from engineering professor Jasper Shealy, who’s been studying ski-related injuries for over 40 years.
Jasper Shealy, a professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology’s college of engineering, is 73 years old. He’s been skiing since 1963 and studying topics related to safety in skiing since 1970, when he was a graduate student at New York State University at Buffalo. In a recent study Shealy published in the Journal of American Society for Testing and Materials, he found that skiers over the age of 55 were between 11 and 42 percent less likely to suffer from ski-related injuries like bone fractures and ligament and tendon tears. Here’s what else he’s learned over the years.
You have been studying skiing and safety for over 40 years now. Why is this subject of such great interest to you?
It was my graduate research thesis topic. I found the topic to be fascinating and a great way to use engineering to make skiing safer, which in turn has resulted in a great deal of personal satisfaction to know that I have been in some small way a part of what has made skiing as safe as it is today.
What is the most valuable takeaway you’ve learned over your years of research?
It’s hard to say, but maybe to not get over confident. Accidents can happen to anyone, but there is a lot people can do to reduce the chance of an accident as well as the severity if you have one. For example, to avoid an accident in the first place, use your head while skiing, maintain what we called in the U.S. Air Force something called “situational awareness,” which translates into being aware of what is going on around you. Do not be oblivious to what other people are doing and might do. Pay attention and have a plan for what might happen.
How do you suggest reducing the severity of the injury if an accident does happen?
Wear a helmet, avoid skiing fast when near trees. Try and avoid crowded trails.
Have you suffered from many injuries on the hill?
I began skiing in 1963 and have never had a serious injury while skiing, at least not one that ever required any medical attention.
You’ve studied helmet use among skiers and snowboarders to great lengths. In your opinion, are we better off wearing a helmet when we ride?
Everyone is absolutely better off wearing a helmet. On the other hand, helmets are not a panacea, and if you run into a fixed object at typical skiing speeds, you will need more than just a helmet to prevent serious injury or death. Helmets are much more effective for minor head injuries than major impacts, so don’t have unrealistic expectations.
Do you think people ski more recklessly because they’re wearing a helmet?
People do ski differently when they have a helmet on, and that is not always good. Maybe try and ski as if you were not wearing a helmet.
(*Sportgevity would like to note that there is mounting evidence showing that in general helmeted riders do not ski more recklessly. However, we will continue to follow this topic as more data comes in.)
In your most recent study you did on aging and ski injuries, you found that people over 55 were not, in fact, at higher risk of getting injured while skiing. Were you surprised by these findings?
Not really. Older skiers tend to have a higher skill level, which is usually associated with a lower rate of injury. Also, I think that older skiers ski with more caution. They generally are not out to prove anything, they are just there to enjoy the mountain, not beat it into submission. Older skiers are generally not as robust as younger skiers and snowboarders, so they will typically engage in compensatory behavior.
What is your best advice to people heading out to the mountains this winter in terms of how to stay injury-free?
Use your head, don't take unnecessary chances, but have some fun.