Heading off trouble: Are helmets on the slopes a wise precaution or unnecessary caution?

The 2009/10 season will be a watershed in the use of crash helmets by recreational skiers. Two decades ago it was unusual to see anyone but a racer wearing a helmet; now, figures from the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) suggest that in the US most recreational skiers will be doing so this season. Its survey last season found 48 per cent of skiers and boarders were wearing helmets, up by 5 per cent in a year. How can one be so sure of a further increase in helmet usage next season? Because of the death in March of the actress Natasha Richardson after a fall on the slopes of Tremblant, in the Canadian province of Quebec.

Richardson reportedly fell on soft snow on a beginners' slope. She was not wearing a helmet, and she hit her head on the ground. In the immediate aftermath of the fall she seemed hardly injured; but her condition deteriorated swiftly, and the following day she died – as a result, said the New York City examiner's office, of a "blunt impact to the head".

It was her celebrity that made Richardson's death an international event. But it had a particular resonance for skiers. The actress was not engaged in what might be regarded as "dangerous" skiing; on the contrary, to wear a helmet for what she was doing might then have been regarded as overdressing. But since her death it appears that a helmet is a proper precaution for entry-level skiers as well as those who expose themselves to greater risk by skiing harder and faster. In short, everyone who participates in snowsports should wear one.

The view that helmets are primarily for those who venture into hazardous terrain is reflected in their usage, at least in the United States. The NSAA says that 26 per cent of beginners wear them, 38 per cent of intermediates, and 55 per cent of experts. With the potential of the beginners' market about to be tapped, ski-helmet suppliers can expect a good 2009/10 season, especially now that they and their retail outlets are prepared: immediately after Richardson's death, supply could not keep up with demand.

The ski-helmet business also got early notice of another source of demand for its products. After a high-profile accident such as Richardson's, it befits big ski-resort operators to respond, especially in a litigious culture such as America's: to make a show of taking their duty of care seriously could be important in making a defence, should litigation arise over a subsequent injury or death. So in mid-April the Wall-Street-quoted Vail Resorts company, which operates ski areas in Colorado and on the California/Nevada border, announced that from this season all employees would have to wear helmets when skiing or boarding. It also required the use of helmets by all children taking ski and board lessons, and specified that ski-equipment packages for those aged 12 or under must include a helmet – unless a parent or legal guardian signed a waiver.

In October, the other big North American ski-resort operator, Intrawest, followed suit. It announced policies similar to those of Vail Resorts; but in addition it withdrew the right of a parent or guardian to opt out of the children's helmet requirement. It also specifically recommended that all skiers and boarders at its resorts should wear helmets. Intrawest went the extra mile for good reason: as the owner of the Tremblant area at which Natasha Richardson fell, it is in a particularly exposed position.

A cynic might regard the clamour for crash helmets as bordering on the hysterical, for two reasons. First, skiing and boarding are not unduly dangerous: by the NSAA's reckoning, swimming is much more risky. The number of people killed annually in the US while participating in snowsports has been quite consistent since the early 1990s. Excluding those caught in avalanches, the average is 39 fatalities per season. The number of US skier-visits per season, however, reaches into eight figures: last year's total was 57.4 million. The chances of being killed on the slopes are not the proverbial one in a million, but considerably lower than that.

Second, and more troublingly, the numbers do not suggest that helmet-wearing makes winter sports safer. If a rapidly growing number of skiers in the US are choosing to wear helmets on the slopes, one would reasonably expect the fatality rate in the country to have declined. But it has not done so. And eight of those who died in ski accidents in 2008/9 were wearing helmets.

Trawl the internet for research on the use of helmets by skiers and boarders, and you will be amazed how much work is being done. But the material is remarkably diffuse, and rarely decisive. In general, research does favour the use of helmets; but a Norwegian medical team's 2006 report on "Helmet use and the risk of head injuries in Alpine skiers and snowboarders" is fairly representative in the tenor of its conclusion. It judged that "helmet use is associated with the reduced risk of head injuries".

Unfortunately there are many variables to distract the researchers. Much inconclusive stuff has been written about whether it is primarily risk-takers who wear helmets or precaution-takers; another issue which has been floated – and still drifts with the tides – is the possibility that it is the fashion for doing jumps and tricks on both boards and skis which has undone the good work of the growing band of helmet-wearers. Of more concern is the frequently raised suspicion that while helmets can prevent the type of injuries associated with low-speed accidents, they are simply not strong enough to withstand the sort of impact that causes serious head injuries, which are the dominant cause of snowsport fatalities.

When I started wearing a helmet, about a decade ago, it was merely out of interest in a new facet of skiing. Most people of my age who wore them, it turned out, had been forced into it by their children: cocky kids who resisted parental pressure – "If helmets are so important, why don't you wear one?" – gave them no choice. But I just slipped into the habit of wearing mine; with a thin, base-layer "hoodie" worn underneath, it kept out the fiercest January cold; and if energetic climbing in springtime did sometimes send sweat coursing down my spectacle lenses, the heat generated was nothing like that suffered by cyclists in helmets. So on the basis that it might one day save my life, and was unlikely to do me any harm, I have worn the helmet without fail for 10 years. In that time, it has only once hit the ground (not counting the occasions on which I have dropped it). But I am quite a cautious skier.

If the proliferation of helmets hasn't yet impacted on fatality statistics in the US, it has certainly boosted the market: the variety of helmets has expanded, and the volume of sales has increased the incentive to innovate. For this season Salomon (01276 404860; salomon.com) has a new model range called Custom Air based on technology developed by a French protective clothing company, Docmeter. Getting the right fit for a helmet, so that it is firmly seated on the head, can be problematic. Custom Air gets around that by having inflatable pockets in the helmet lining: the wearer simply pumps them up when the helmet is on. It's a cunning piece of kit, available on helmets costing from £100.

election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'