Page last updated at 15:49 GMT, Thursday, 19 March 2009

Should ski helmets be compulsory?

By James Cove
BBC News, in the Swiss Alps

Some argue that people wearing helmets ski with less care

The death of Natasha Richardson has sparked a debate about whether it should be mandatory for skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets.

There's been a sharp rise in the number of people wearing helmets after several high-profile ski accidents this winter and some compulsion has already come in.

However, the medical evidence is not conclusive and it's not thought any widespread compulsion is imminent in the Alps.

This winter Lower Austria made it compulsory for all children under 14 to wear a helmet after the death of a 41-year old woman who had a high-speed collision with the German politician, Dieter Althaus, in January. He was wearing a helmet and survived, while she had no head protection.

Althaus has since been found guilty of manslaughter.

After the accident, helmet sales increased sharply in Austria and Germany and some shops ran out of stock. In the UK, retailer Snow and Rock reports a 15% growth in sales this winter.

A helmet will protect by absorbing some of the impact, thus possibly reducing the severity of injury
Jonathan Bell
Consultant surgeon

Italy already makes it compulsory for children to wear a helmet and many ski schools across the Alps insist on it.

"Serious head injuries are thankfully comparatively rare in skiing but are a significant cause of death and severe long-term disability," says the consultant surgeon, Jonathan Bell.

"There is good evidence that even moderate head injuries can lead to some permanent disability.

"A helmet will protect against minor injury by absorbing some of the impact and spreading the load, thus possibly reducing the severity of injury."

This winter in Austria seven people have died as a result of collisions on the slopes. In total, 29 skiers and snowboarders have died in ski accidents this season.

So, how many people already wear a helmet?

'Common sense'

The BBC conducted a straw poll on a cable car in Verbier, Switzerland, and out of 75 people, 34 were wearing helmets.

"I have chosen not to wear a helmet but I am now definitely considering wearing one," said British skier Rory Ross-Russell, who has been skiing for over 30 years.

Crossed skis in the snow warn of an accident
Experts do not expect skiers to be forced to wear helmets

"I ensure my children wear one so I guess I should too."

Those people who wore a helmet said it was simply common sense, but all were against making it compulsory.

"People should be educated about the risks and then be allowed to make their own mind up," one Dutch skier said.

In Quebec, Canada, where Natasha Richardson suffered her fatal accident, it's reported that moves are already being considered to make helmets compulsory.

Some doctors had raised the issue earlier this season and the province's Sports Minister, Michelle Courchesne, announced it was under review for next winter.

However, the instances of severe head injuries are very rare and some people argue that wearing a helmet makes people feel invincible so they ski with less care and consideration.

It's highly unlikely that it will be made compulsory for everyone to wear a helmet as serious head injuries are relatively rare
Julian Griffiths
British Association of Snowsports Instructors

Natasha Richardson's accident and death have been widely reported on skiing and snowboarding websites.

Their chat rooms are full of the debate, though most skiers and snowboarders do not want to be made to wear a helmet - most people do not feel it will be made compulsory.

This is a view supported by the British Association of Snowsports Instructors, BASI.

"Despite the debate going on it's highly unlikely that it will be made compulsory for everyone to wear a helmet as serious head injuries are relatively rare and the medical evidence is not conclusive," says Julian Griffiths, a spokesman for BASI.

"At the moment many Alpine nations encourage helmet use, but do not want to pass laws to make it mandatory."

Changed attitudes

Attitudes to wearing a helmet have changed considerably in recent years.

Ski patrol member transports an injured skier
Serious head injuries while skiing are relatively rare, instructors say

Personally I have been wearing one for the past seven years but when I first wore one as a ski instructor, the head of my ski school in Switzerland preferred me not to wear one as he felt it sent out the wrong signal.

"It makes instructors look like they are extreme skiers about to jump off cliffs and ski dangerously," I was told.

Now, though, ski instructors are encouraged to wear a helmet as it is thought to set a good example.

Whether it is made compulsory or not the death of Natasha Richardson is certain to see more and more people opting to wear a helmet on the slopes.

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