What Now: Hardheaded?

Last season’s death of actress Natasha Richardson revived the debate about making helmets mandatory on the slopes. Should there even be a debate?
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Last season’s death of actress Natasha Richardson revived the debate about making helmets mandatory on the slopes. Should there even be a debate?
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The unsettling death of actress Natasha Richardson from a head injury she received from a fall during a routine lesson at Tremblant, Que., last spring rekindled an ongoing controversy: Should helmets be mandatory equipment or remain a personal choice? The debate, which had already been sparked by a high-profile fatality in Austria earlier in the season, went global after Richardson’s death, and it continues to rage wherever people put boards on snow.

Many resorts this season—undoubtedly influenced by the front-page fatalities—are toughening already strict youth helmet requirements, frequently mandating helmets for all children in ski schools. This time, however, the long-running helmet debate has expanded into serious discussions of requiring helmets for everyone on the snow. Vail Resorts, the largest ski operator in the country, recently mandated that all employees wear helmets while skiing or riding on the job, becoming the first company to do so.

Even without mandates, helmet use in the U.S. has risen by about five percent annually over the past decade. Last season, the National Ski Areas Association reports, approximately half of all skiers and riders in the U.S. wore helmets, including nearly 80 percent of children under 10 and 63 percent of adults over 65. Despite the increase, the number of annual fatalities from skiing accidents over the past decade has remained constant, about 40 per year.

Richardson remains the lightning rod for helmet proponents. She wasn’t wearing a helmet when she fell in soft snow on a beginner slope. She seemed fine afterward, joking about the mishap, but her condition quickly worsened, and she died the next day from internal bleeding caused by a “blunt impact to the head,” according to the New York City medical examiner’s office. As it happens, the Association of Quebec Emergency Room Doctors had called for ski helmets to be made mandatory about a month before. After the highly publicized accident, the Quebec legislature began debating a law to make helmets mandatory for all skiers.

Two months before Richardson’s death, the helmet debate had been stirred in Europe by another high-profile skiing fatality. Dieter Althaus, a prominent ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, collided with a 41-year-old woman at the Riesneralm resort in Austria. The woman, who was not wearing a helmet, died while being transported to medical care, while the helmeted Althaus was hospitalized with severe brain trauma. He recovered and was later convicted of manslaughter and fined approximately $50,000. Over the summer, the chancellor’s office in Austria announced that helmets will be mandatory for children up to the age of 15. Similar regulations have already been passed in Italy.

The helmet debate in the United States started in earnest in 1998 after two celebrity deaths on the slopes. Singer-turned-congressman Sonny Bono died when he skied into a tree at Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly Resort less than a week after Michael Kennedy, a son of Robert F. Kennedy, was killed when he hit a tree at Aspen Mountain. Since then, several states, including Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and New York, have considered enacting mandatory helmet laws, though none has yet done so. The focus of the proposed legislation in the U.S. has been on requiring helmets for children on the slopes, a seemingly straightforward concept until the discussion arrives at enforcement.

Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, says, “If it’s a statute and there are civil penalties, there has to be some other enforcement mechanism than the ski area.” Referring to proposed legislation deliberated in New Jersey earlier this year that would require helmets on children, Berry says, “If you’re going to write a helmet law, make it look like the bicycle helmet laws, in which the parent is the person who’s obligated to provide the helmet.”

A growing number of ski resorts in the U.S. have established their own helmet policies. Since 2002, Aspen Skiing Co. has required students 12 and under at its ski schools to wear helmets. “We felt that if people were entrusting their children to our ski school, we wanted to do everything we could to ensure their safety,” says company spokesman Jeff Hanle. This year, Vail Resorts began requiring children 12 and under to wear helmets during group lessons.

Jasper Shealy, professor emeritus of engineering at New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology, is a longtime researcher of helmet use on the slopes. Citing his studies and others, he says that helmet effectiveness varies greatly depending on the type of accident, the speed at which a skier is traveling and other factors. “For someone falling on hardpack, the helmet does a fantastic job,” Shealy explains. “It converts what would be a fairly serious if not fatal head injury into a minor head injury.” However, helmets usually aren’t as much help when someone skis at high speed into a fixed object, such as a tree, he says. “For most accidental ski fatalities when the person was wearing a helmet, the primary cause of death was not a head injury, it was some kind of massive torso injury.”

Skiers and boarders should wear helmets, Shealy says, but should understand their limits. “I’m not saying a helmet couldn’t save your life. It could. Just don’t have unrealistic expectations.”

Some industry officials view helmets as the seatbelts of our time: A generation ago few people used seatbelts; now they are universally accepted as standard safety gear, and to not use them while driving is considered reckless. For now, helmets remain a personal decision.

Colorado resident Shawn Carlson, 44, is a lifelong skier and has been wearing a helmet for more than a decade, a decision partly prompted by his love of skiing fast. “Any other sport in which you’re going 30 miles per hour, you would wear a helmet,” Carlson says. “So it seems logical I should wear one.”

Before You Buy a Helmet

The key factor in purchasing a helmet is fit. A helmet that doesn’t fit properly won’t protect you properly. Because there is a wide variety of helmet designs, try on several styles. The fit should be snug, but not painfully tight. Check out the chin-strap adjustment. And bring your goggles when buying a helmet or consider a helmet/goggle system.

For information on helmet use and children, go to lidsonkids.org.