Do helmets help?

Evidence suggests that skiing helmets won’t reduce deaths

Do helmets help?Francis Graveline, owner of a ski boutique at Owl’s Head mountain resort southeast of Montreal, sold 21 helmets last Saturday, more than twice his normal tally. Credit the tragic death days earlier of Natasha Richardson after a minor skiing accident. “I’ve been saying over and over for five years that people should wear helmets and hardly anyone listened,” Graveline says. “Now a celebrity gets killed and everybody wants one.”

But does every skier really need one? It may not matter. Soon, governments across the country are likely to mandate them. On Tuesday, just days after Richardson’s death sparked concern over a lack of snow helmet norms here, the Canadian Standards Association said it would begin testing helmets for certification next month, using standards it’s been developing for two years. Health Canada said it would consider referencing those new CSA specs in the Hazardous Products Act, making them mandatory in all helmets made in Canada. And Liberal MP Hedy Fry ramped up efforts to fast-track a similar private member’s bill banning all non-CSA approved helmets in Canada.

Yet studies show mandatory helmet use would likely have very little impact on the rate of ski-related fatalities, which anyway are surprisingly low. Although national numbers don’t exist, between 1990 and 2008 only 39 people died on Quebec ski hills. A provincial coroner’s report there last year found that of the 26 skiing-related deaths between 1990 and 2004, just 14 were the result of head injuries—an average of one a year—and two of the deceased were actually wearing protective headgear. Fatal injuries in snow sports are generally rare—less than one in 1.5 million days of activity, according to one American report.

Such numbers suggest there’s little evidence that fewer skiers would die in a world of mandatory helmets, says Michael Schwartz, a University of Toronto neurosurgeon who sat on the CSA committee that put together the specs for cycling helmets. “There would be more helmets worn to save one person than would be the case with cycling,” he says. “Natasha Richardson, from what I can gather, was extremely unlucky.”

Indeed, sports injury expert Jasper Shealy, of the Rochester Institute of Technology, says that despite an increase in helmet-wearing in recent years, the rate of skiing and snowboarding fatalities has stayed constant. “We’ve reached the point where roughly half the population is wearing a helmet, but over that same period of time the death rate hasn’t changed one iota,” he says.

Helmets just don’t help in the catastrophic, speed-related accidents that lead to death, says Shealy. “If you are in a typical fatality scenario—hitting your head against a solid object at the speeds that we believe people typically die at—I don’t think a helmet’s going to make much difference.” Though Shealy encourages skiers to wear helmets, “the notion that you should wear one so it will protect your head if you hit a tree and keep you from dying is probably misplaced hope.”

And the number of Canadians wearing helmets on our ski slopes is rising in any case. In Canada, Jimmie Spencer, head of the Canada West Ski Areas Association, says that about 45 per cent of Canadian skiers now wear them. Among younger skiers the numbers are even higher. A mail-in survey of nine- and 10-year-old skiers conducted this year by the Canadian Ski Council found that of the 4,000 who responded, 92 per cent wear helmets. “I personally wouldn’t go on the hill without one,” says Ski Council president Colin Chedore.

Both Spencer and Chedore bristle at the notion of mandatory helmets. “It should be a question of the individual’s choice,” says Spencer, adding that “a lot of people believe if they put a helmet on their heads, then they are invincible. That simply is not the case.” Shealy puts it another way: “Ideally, wear a helmet. But ski as if you weren’t.”

With Martin Patriquin

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