Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Ski death provokes helmet debate

The death of a woman in a highly publicised skiing collision last week has shaken holidaymakers and sparked debate about safety on the piste, finds the BBC's Tristana Moore in Kitzbuehel, Austria.

A skier in a helmet in Zermatt
In some countries it is compulsory for children to wear helmets

There has been plenty of early snow in the Alps and the ski season is in full swing.

But in Kitzbuehel, the news of a fatal skiing accident has overshadowed the usual frivolous atmosphere at this time of year.

"I bought a helmet last week," said Gudrun. "I've been skiing for 15 years and I never wore one, but I just want to be on the safe side now."

People in Germany and Austria have been shocked by the recent ski accident involving a senior German politician, Dieter Althaus, and it has triggered a debate about wearing helmets.

The Austrian tabloid newspaper Kronen Zeitung ran the headline: "Should wearing a helmet be made compulsory?"

Manslaughter inquiry

In the accident, which happened on New Year's Day, a Slovak woman was killed and Mr Althaus, the governor of the eastern German state of Thuringia, was seriously injured when they collided while skiing.

Mr Althaus, 50, was flown by helicopter to hospital in Schwarzach and he was placed in an artificially-induced coma.

According to surgeons, he suffered injuries to the skull and brain. Neurologists said it was likely that the helmet that he was wearing saved his life.

Dieter Althaus, file picture
Dieter Althaus was a key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Beata Christandl, a 41-year-old mother-of-four, was not wearing a helmet. She died on the way to hospital after suffering from multiple skull injuries.

Doctors say Mr Althaus has now come out of his coma and his condition is said to be improving.

"Mr Althaus can't remember anything," said Dr Reinhard Lenzhofer, from the hospital in Schwarzach.

He can't remember what happened before the accident, and he can't remember anything after he crashed," he said.

The accident happened at a junction of two pistes in the Riesneralm ski resort in Austria.

According to reports in the German media Mr Althaus was skiing on a red, intermediate, slope which crosses an easier slope, on which Beata Christandl was travelling.

One investigator said both skiers were travelling at around 50km/h (30 mph).

Austrian prosecutors have launched an inquiry and Mr Althaus is being investigated for manslaughter.

People tend to ski faster these days and they overestimate their own abilities
Josef Schmid
Austrian skiing federation

Police have already questioned one eyewitness who came forward two days after the accident took place.

But Austrian police remain baffled - the ski conditions were good, and Mr Althaus and Ms Christandl were both experienced skiers.

Busy slopes

Josef Schmid, a spokesman for the Austrian skiing federation, urged all those on the slopes to err on the side of caution.

"We recommend that all skiers should wear helmets, it's not just young children, adults also need protection," Mr Schmid said.

Police demonstrate the scene of a crash on an Austrian ski slope
Police explained where the accident happened

"With the new carving skis, people tend to ski faster these days and they overestimate their own abilities. The slopes are very busy and it's much safer for everyone if you wear a helmet," he said.

Politicians and leading figures in sport have called for the wearing of helmets to be made compulsory for skiers and snowboarders in Germany and Austria.

In Italy, it is compulsory for all children under the age of 14 to wear a helmet on the ski slopes.

And the idea has support from among skiing's elite.

"A helmet would help to reduce the severity of injuries," said Hilde Gerg, the 33-year-old German Olympic slalom champion, who has now retired from professional skiing, in an interview with Bunte magazine.

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