The tragic death of Natasha Richardson following an apparently minor tumble on a beginner slope in Mont Tremblant has re-ignited the debate over making helmets compulsory for skiing and snowboarding.
Ms Richardson fell whilst taking a lesson and was not wearing a helmet. She was later admitted to hospital and subsequently died from head injuries.
Earlier this year in Austria, a high speed collision between Dieter Althaus, a German politician, and a 41 year old woman resulted in the woman's death. She was not wearing a helmet. The politician, who was wearing a helmet, has since been found guilty of causing death by negligence.
Following this incident, it is now compulsory in Lower Austria for all children under the age of 14 to wear helmets. In Italy this has been the case for a while, and the vast majority of ski schools in Europe will insist or strongly advise that children should have helmets.
Clearly there is a risk of injury when doing wintersports - as there is with all sports. However whenever a tragic accident occurs there is usually a knee-jerk reaction which follows.
In our health and safety regulated society there will be calls for making helmets compulsory for all.
A Dangerous Sport?
In a recent BBC article, Dr Mike Langran, who has been studying alpine injury rates for several years, has clearly outlined how "dangerous" snow sports are.
"I don't personally regard snow sports in general as dangerous sports at all. For a start, the overall injury risk combining all the snow sports is about 0.2% to 0.4%. This is really very low. Think of an average game of football. Usually two or three players end up with an injury at the end of the game."
The incidence of head injuries in skiing and snowboarding is very low according to Dr Langran's research. Damage to the knee is the most common injury sustained by skiers, whilst snowboarding injuries tend to favour the shoulder, wrist and arm.
To quote the BBC article again:
"For every 10,000 people on the slopes on any particular day, no more than three people will sustain a head injury requiring medical attention. Fortunately, out of all these people with head injuries, the majority (90%) of the injuries are minor cuts and bruises. The remaining 10% are potentially more serious and can be deadly."
Do Helmets Make a Difference?
A survey by the National Ski Areas Association in the States has found that approximately 43% of skiers and snowboarders in the US now wear helmets (winter 2007-8). This is up from 25% in 2002-2003. Yet the same study also found that the rate of accidental deaths on the slope has not changed.
What research has shown on both sides of the Atlantic is that wearing a helmet can help reduce the severity of a head injury. A helmet alone however will not prevent injury in the case of a high speed collision. So if you are genuinely concerned about being safe when you ski or snowboard there are other measures that you should take as well.
The Highway Code of the Slopes
In our ski helmets and why they won't always keep you safe post, we outlined the 10 point code of conduct - the FIS rules of skiing and snowboarding.
How many people know the rules or are even aware that they exist?
If you've been skiing this year did you see these rules displayed anywhere in your resort? Were they on the piste map? Did anyone in the resort tell you about them - eg ski instructor, resort rep, guide? Do your children know the rules? Do your ski buddies know them? Do you know them?
Lift pass companies, tourist offices, ski schools, tour operators and just about anyone who is involved in the ski industry should be making sure that the FIS rules are out there and are very visible for all to see, In the States and Canada, piste patrols police the slopes and will pull up skiers who they feel are going too fast - they can even confiscate a lift pass in extreme cases.
European resorts tend to have a much more laissez-faire attitude.
We are not advocating that everyone should ski at 1 mile an hour, however we are advocating that everyone should be in control. Improvements in equipment, such as carving skis and better boots, give people the idea that beyond about three weeks they don't need to take lessons. Snowboarders will very rarely take lessons after the initial beginner phase.
If you can't stop when you need to, where you need to, then you're going too fast, and no amount of plastic on your head is going to save your knees or shoulders, or those of someone else, when you helplessly skid into them.
Of course what happened to Natasha Richardson was a terribly sad accident, not involving high speed or collision. As in all areas of life accidents happen, and we don't know if her death could have been avoided by wearing a helmet.
Wearing a helmet should remain a personal choice, but skiing or boarding responsibly, and with consideration for other mountain users, is an obligation.