Published March 19, 2009
Actress Natasha Richardson was not wearing a helmet on Monday when she fell and suffered a critical head injury on a beginner ski slope in Canada. The question is — would a helmet have saved her life?
The answer is a surprising one: Maybe not.
For years, the ski industry has been encouraging skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets.
Statistics from the 2007/2008 season released by the National Ski Areas Association found 43 percent of skiers and snowboarders wear helmets and that helmet use increases by 4-5 percent each year.
But despite the significant increase in helmet use over the past several seasons, the fatality rate in skiing and snowboarding has remained constant.
“Helmets are not going to prevent you from having a fatality,” Dave Byrd, director of education and risk for the National Ski Areas Association told FOXNews.com.
“What they are going to prevent is the lower-end scale of injuries, such as lacerations to the scalp or mild concussions.”
Byrd said the NSAA strongly encourages all skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets — but he stressed that the behavior of people on the mountain is just as important.
“Wear a helmet — but ski as if you’re not wearing one,” he said. “Sometimes people put on a helmet and feel like it’s a cloak of invincibility — but that’s not the case.”
The problem is that most helmets are designed to prevent injuries up to only 14 miles per hour. That’s not going to be real helpful, Byrd said, when, on average, a typical skier on an intermediate trail is moving at 25 to 40 miles per hour.
“And so we strongly encourage everyone to follow the responsibility code, which is a seven-point code that has been around for 30 years, about being responsible while skiing.”
Dr. Arno Fried, chairman of neurosurgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, said it’s important to be cautious because skiing presents the perfect scenario for a serious head injury.
“The head is moving quickly, and when it comes to an abrupt stop when you fall or hit something, this can cause traumatic brain injury.”
“In general, injuries can run the full gamut: from a concussion, which a person can recover from in a few hours, to a severe injury/hemorrhage in the brain, which can take weeks or months to recover from — sometimes requiring surgery, sometimes not.”
Fried said the bottom line: Children and adults should wear helmets.
In 1999, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a report recommending all skiers and snowboarders wear helmets to help prevent head injuries from falls and collisions.
That recommendation was made following the highly publicized deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy in 1998. Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, was killed during a ski accident in Aspen, Colo. A few days later, Bono suffered fatal injuries while skiing in Lake Tahoe.
Still, Byrd said skiing remains a remarkably safe sport.
“On average, there have been 39 fatalities per year over the last decade,” he said. “And that shows that skiing is just as safe – or safer – compared with the fatalities that result from swimming or bicycling.”