Airbag technology makes downhill skiiers safer

Downhill ski racers practice their craft by gliding down the side of a mountain at speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour. The slightest mistake at those speeds can end in tragedy. New technological innovations may avoid life-threatening injuries.

On Dec. 19, Olympic champion, Mathias Mayer, was the beneficiary of a technological breakthrough that has gradually become more accepted in the sport of ski racing. A protective vest that inflates in a similar way to an automobile airbag can now provide necessary protection in a potential crash.

The airbag system is one of two that are currently approved for competitive use. The protective vest will inflate when the struggling athlete reaches an angle and vector that can only result in a fall. These calculations are based on data input from the vest and appropriate algorithms.

The inflated vest softens the impact to the chest and supports the neck. Approximately 40 people die from ski and snowboard-related accidents each year. Many of these are brain injuries.

Helmet technology has evolved to the current level where a helmet is lightweight while providing maximum protection. Typically, these injuries occur at high velocity and involve skull fracture and hemorrhage within the brain.

Neck injuries that result from sudden extension of the cervical spine similar to whiplash in a high-speed automobile accident can cause fracture of the cervical spine and potential paralysis.

Another less common neck injury is the result of tearing of the vertebral arteries leading to the brain and causing a massive stroke. This is believed to be the injury that may have caused the death of freestyle skier Sarah Burke.

More common injuries to the lower extremities have been diminished thanks to improved ski boot design and quick release bindings.

As winter sports become more extreme, protective equipment design must also improve.

Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at

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