By KALPANA SRINIVASAN

.c The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Millions of skiers and snowboarders should wear helmets, the government says in a new report intended to help prevent the kind of accidents that killed Rep. Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy.

The protective headgear can reduce and avoid thousands of head injuries each year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission finds in a study being released today. It also could cut by nearly half the number of deaths related to skiing and snowboarding.

“We’re giving people the best safety information we have: That when they do ski, they should decide to wear helmets,” Ann Brown, the commission’s chairwoman, said in an interview.

The study concludes that helmet use by skiers and snowboarders could prevent or reduce the severity of 44 percent of head injuries to adults. The protective headgear could do the same for 53 percent of head injuries to children under age 15.

The CPSC study estimates that 7,700 injuries — including 2,600 head injuries to children — could be prevented or reduced in severity each year with the use of snowboarding and skiing helmets. There were 17,500 head injuries associated with skiing and snowboarding in 1997.

Helmet use also could prevent about 11 of the 24 deaths from skiing and snowboarding each year.

Getting more skiers and snowboarders voluntarily to wear helmets may not be easy. Among the possible obstacles are fears that helmets will reduce speed on the slopes, the price of the helmets and just plain vanity.

“It’s something that people don’t think is cool,” said Gary Taylor, manager of racing events at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Those trying to avoid “helmet head” or trying to show off their hair on the slopes might resist wearing the headgear, he said.

Good models of helmets for skiing and snowboarding can start at $100, said Taylor, although lesser quality helmets are available for as little as $30.

Brown warned that skiers and snowboarders shouldn’t try to substitute bicycle helmets, because they do not offer the right kind of protection.

Still, Taylor said encouraging skiers and snowboarders at Mammoth Mountain to wear helmets has met with some success. “We’re trying to get more of the athletes to wear helmets. It’s actually been taken better than expected,” he said.

The number of head injuries among skiers decreased from 13,600 in 1993 to 12,700 in 1997. But snowboarding injuries nearly tripled and the number of head injuries caused by snowboarding increased fivefold during that period.

The commission hopes the same efforts that have led to increased use of helmets by in-line skaters and bicyclists will prompt those heading to the slopes to take a helmet.

The skiing deaths of Bono on Jan. 5, 1998, and of Kennedy the week before also have helped attract attention to the importance of the safety gear.