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.

Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Life and Style
food + drink
Voices
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959
voicesWard committed no crime, and the truth is still being covered up, writes Geoffrey Robertson QC
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
news... you won't believe how bad their skills were
News
people

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright and Mark Wright
tvStrictly goes head-to-head with Apprentice
Sport
footballPremier League preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's clashes
News
i100
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas