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What Now: Hardheaded?

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?
By Martin Forstenzer, Contributor, SKI Magazine
posted: 11/10/2009
Role Model

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

reviews of What Now: Hardheaded?

There shouldn't be a debate.

Will we be required to wear athletic supporters and cups?  Who will check?  How about auto-inflating crash bags just in case they fall off the lift? Where will it end? 

Stuff happens.  A meteor could crash into my house and kill me where I type, should I wear a helmet or get a special roof designed to protect me?  Obviously, if you are going to be doing flips, jumps, or craziness you should choose to wear a helmet, but 99.9% of all skiers aren't going to bang their heads on anything.

It's sad when anyone dies, but it doesn't mean we need a law to protect against very rare, fluke accidents.

In a sport that lets you sit 50 feet above the ground, above a cliff, in a whiteout, in 25mph winds, with no restraint and have safety personnel who make less than the local McDonalds assistant manager....I think helmets are the least of their worries.  Freedom to get a lift and schuss for all, whatever that looks like.


What's unfortunate is this is one of two stories that ever seem to make national media:

1) Celebrity bumps head while skiing

2) Global warming is so bad it's making celebrities bump their head while skiing.

There's good news out there too, it's just the national media gets no shock value out of it.

i say leave it to be a personal choice,more laws and rules are not going to make much differance, as for the schools and the ones learning might be a good idea for resorts to require when beginers are in class,,,, i know when i first started i rang my bell once or twice ! now I wear one   MY choice!

Helmets Facts 

  • The two biggest causes of head trauma on skis / snowboards are #1, air (as in getting big…) and #2, lack of ability which, separately or in combination, increase the likelihood of the slider’s head making abrupt and unplanned contact with the ground. Take away these two factors and you eliminate 80-90% of reported head injuries. Other widely held concerns such as collisions with stationary objects or other skiers account for tiny percentages of reported incidents.
  • Of the top two causes, getting air of any variety is by far the biggest contributor. Interestingly, we have seen a proliferation of terrain parks at ski areas over the past decade presenting a virtual fiesta of head trauma-inducing rails, jumps, half-pipes etc. These “park features” most often attract the young and there is a strong positive correlation between youth and lack of ability (i.e. double jeopardy). Not that our public officials don’t have a zillion higher priority things that they should be concerned about but, any governmental body that is serious about combating head injuries among the winter sports loving members of the population should first ban terrain parks and second make getting air elsewhere on the mountain against the law.
  • Nobody seems to focus on the behavior behind the injuries. Michael Kennedy was skiing backwards. Sonny Bono was an intermediate and almost certainly high on prescription painkillers when he headed into the glades alone. Forcing people to wear helmets while simultaneously allowing new terrain parks and ignoring the behavior that causes head injuries is like enforcing seatbelt laws while allowing people to drink and drive. I would like to see people try to focus on controlling the behavior behind the problem rather than on trying to simply cushion the impact of unconstrained, dangerous behavior.
  • Young kids and novices of all ages would be well advised to wear helmets. In the case of kids this is pretty straightforward and you won’t see any argument in the literature. In fact, last time I looked, the American Medical Association’s Policy on this topic was to “support the voluntary use of helmets and protective headgear for children and adolescents during recreational skiing and snowboarding.” However the AMA’s Council of Scientific Affairs goes on to say that “as of the date of the report on its findings (September 1997), there was insufficient scientific evidence to support a policy of mandatory helmet use.” A fairly lukewarm endorsement from a body not renowned for its recklessness but basically one based on the improved but limited protection helmets can offer to skiers & snowboarders moving at the lower speeds typical of small kids or middle aged British actresses.
  • Helmets won’t save your life. As your article states, the cause of most ski / snowboard related deaths is massive trauma. Vermont’s medical examiner looked at over 50 ski / snowboard fatalities in the state during the 80’s and 90’s and concluded that a helmet would not have changed the outcome in a single case. Helmets can certainly mitigate head trauma in certain kinds of falls. However as my 11 year old daughter found in a face-first beater while racing NASTAR last winter or my friend’s helmeted son discovered following a terrain park concussion a few weeks later, helmets offer limited protection at best. If you ski fast like I often do you can simply forget it. The only fatality at our mountain in recent memory involved a helmeted Masters racer losing it at high speed while free skiing. You got it, massive internal trauma.
  • The frequency of head injuries among strong skiers who remain at ground level is miniscule. In fact such people face a risk of head injury that is at least 100 times greater every time they step into their tub for a shower. Check the numbers – this is a statistical fact. How many celebrities are going to have to die needlessly from falls in their tubs before our governments step in and mandate the wearing of protective gear while bathing?
  • There is almost no talk about the safety drawbacks of helmets. It’s almost as if it’s blasphemy to suggest such a thing but there are two drawbacks that I am aware of. The first problem refers to a Canadian study that found that the wearing of helmets could exacerbate the severity of ski & snowboard related neck injuries. Makes sense…put a couple of extra pounds on your head and the strain on your neck is necessarily increased in an accident. The second issue is that compared to just a plain old fashioned hat, one’s hearing is impaired by most helmets, especially the ones worn by racers which offer the highest degree of protection. Few people think of hearing acuity as being part of safe skiing but I personally want to hear people coming up behind me and I definitely want people I am overtaking able to hear me coming…on a narrow cat track for example…on your right Dude!. 


The bottom line is that the suppliers of ski equipment did a fantastic job of leaping on the public’s awareness of a couple of well publicized celebrity ski deaths to transform a tiny niche product into a category worth perhaps a half billion dollars per year. Never mind that helmets almost certainly wouldn’t have saved either Michael Kennedy or Cher’s Ex. Along with the switch to shaped skis it is arguably the greatest success story in the industry over the past 10 years. Bravo, that’s free enterprise but just because some slick marketing tells you need to spend $200 or more on a helmet doesn’t necessarily mean the facts substantiate the marketers’ claims. Natasha Richardson's story is sad – she a great human being by all accounts – but in her case again, nobody can be sure that she didn’t have some preexisting weakness in a cerebral artery that was a ticking time bomb whether she was on the Bunny Hill at Tremblant or on a Broadway stage. But, no matter, you once again can hear the insistent beat of the marketers’ war drums telling us to ski in fear if we dare to go without a helmet. And this time idiot politicians are taking up the hypnotic beat. Scary!


Finally, there is the emotional side of it. Skiing for many is about freedom. Can you imagine Stein with a helmet on a bright sunny morning at Deer Valley? I’m all for people choosing what’s right for them and if I lived out west and skied in the trees or out of bounds all the time I would probably do the prudent thing and buy a helmet (with big ear holes). On the other hand, the notion of some government bureaucrats and/or ski area executives swallowing all this marketing crap and forcing me to wear a helmet is repugnant in the extreme. No, I want to be like Stein when I’m 82 reveling in the sheer joy of it all with the cold wind whistling through my grey hair. And if somewhere along the way I catch an edge and meet my end because I don’t have a helmet then I will have died a happy and free man.

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