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Matthias Schrader/AP

How Much Do Ski Helmets Help?

March 21, 2009 08:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
The death of Natasha Richardson has many calling for helmets to be made mandatory on ski slopes.

Richardson’s Death Reopens Helmet Debate

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The death of actress Natasha Richardson, who died Wednesday from bleeding in her skull caused by a skiing accident, has rekindled a debate over the use of helmets on the ski slope. Richardson was not wearing a helmet when she fell during a beginner’s lesson Monday at Quebec’s Mont Tremblant ski resort.

“It’s sad, it’s really sad,” said Canadian Member of Parliament Hedy Fry, a doctor who introduced a bill in 2007 requiring all ski and snowboard helmets meet federal guidelines. “So many Canadian youths, so many Canadians, get (brain injuries) and it could be prevented … It has to take a celebrity to bring this to the fore.”

Her death may inspire Quebec Sports Minister Michelle Courchesne to require all skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets. An organization of emergency room doctors has been pushing for a mandatory helmet rule, citing a 2006 Norwegian study that found “60 per cent of head trauma could be avoided by wearing a helmet.”

The use of helmets by skiers has increased over the past decade due in large part to the high-profile skiing deaths of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono in 1997 and 1998, respectively. According to the National Ski Areas Association, 43 percent of skiers and snowboarders wore helmets in 2008, up from 25 percent in 2003.

Though the number of serious injuries has declined as helmet use increases, the number of deaths has not been affected, and more than half of the deaths on the slope last year involved skiers wearing helmets.

Dave Byrd, director of education and risk for the NSAA, explained to CNN that helmets often cannot prevent serious head injuries in violent crashes. Most helmets are designed for speeds of 14 mph or less, but skiers tend to travel between 25 and 40 mph.

Byrd believes that skiing responsibly is the best way to prevent injury. “Our position is the skier’s behavior has as much or more to do with the safety of the sport as does any piece of equipment,” he said.

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Opinion: Wisdom of wearing helmets

Neurological experts are virtually unanimous in their support for wearing helmets, and many in the skiing industry agree. “I don’t know if there’s a solid argument against wearing one,” said the NSSA’s Troy Hawks to the New York Post. “There might be limitations of what a helmet can do to protect you, but that’s not a good reason to not wear one.”

However, there are many who object to potential laws requiring the use of a helmet. Sportsnet’s Mark Spector believes that skiers have the right to ski without a helmet because it is a “sign of freedom.” “You can live your life in a helmet—that we know for sure,” he says. “But can you enjoy it?”

Dr. Mike Langran, a ski patrol doctor and member of the International Society for Skiing Safety, writes in the Daily Telegraph that while it is advisable to wear a helmet, there is a drawback that may be keeping the death rate of helmeted skiers on par with the rate of skiers without helmets.

“There is evidence that helmets may in fact promote a false sense of security—a higher percentage of those who wear helmets travel faster and admit to taking risks than those who do not,” he writes.

The Daily Telegraph ski correspondent Peter Hardy responds that, although helmets may not reduce the number of deaths, they are necessary to prevent other head injuries that are sometimes overlooked. “My argument is that wearing a helmet prevents common injury such as a headache or concussion in a fall on rock-hard piste. Because there is no injury, there is no statistic.”

Analysis: How Richardson died

Richardson’s death is unique among skiing and snowboarding deaths in that it was caused by a minor fall at a slow speed. She “did not seem to have actually landed in a particularly violent manner,” writes the National Post, and she remained alert and in good spirits until she began suffering a headache about an hour after the fall.

Although it is too early to be known for sure, Richardson likely experienced “talk and die” syndrome, which refers to cases where patients suffer apparently minor head trauma that becomes life-threatening hours later as blood slowly pools between the brain and the skull.

“The apparent lack of focused trauma in Richardson’s case cast doubt on whether a helmet would have helped,” writes MedPage Today editor John Gever.

Reference: Skiing and Snowboarding guide

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