Page last updated at 10:13 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Natasha Richardson death 'inspires ski helmet boom'

By Flora Watkins
BBC News in Portes du Soleil

Man in ski helmet
New technology means modern helmets are very light

The death of Natasha Richardson while skiing in Canada reignited the debate about whether helmets should be worn on the slopes.

The 45-year-old actress died from bleeding in her skull caused by a fall during a lesson. She was not wearing a helmet.

A year on and her untimely death appears to have triggered a dramatic rise in the number of ski helmets sold in the UK.

Although sales have been rising steadily for the past few years, winter outfitter Ellis Brigham says it has seen a spike of 58% this season, while another snow sports company, Snow and Rock, says its sales have tripled.

On the slopes, many skiers and snowboarders say they have been struck by how commonplace helmets have become.

Snowboarders are perceived to be more at risk of head injuries

Mark Greenwood, from Rugby, is skiing with a group of 12 friends in the Portes du Soleil region of the Alps. He says that, for the first time, every single member of the group is wearing a helmet - apart from his wife, and that is only because she didn't get round to buying one.

"Others have died," he says - "Sonny Bono died crashing into a tree. I had a few crashes and thought, 'Now's the time to get a helmet - before it's too late.'"

Bono, who shot to fame as part of US singing duo Sonny and Cher before going on to become a Republican congressman, died in a skiing accident in 1998 aged 62.

'Like concrete'

Phil and Sue Tetley, from Cambridge, are also sporting helmets this season. As former snowboarders, they were already converted. Take-up of "lids" has traditionally been higher amongst boarders, as some think they are more prone to head injuries than skiers.

If you're wearing a helmet, it affects your hearing and it makes people ski beyond their abilities, because they think that they're safe
Ray Zdanovich

"It's just like concrete underneath when it's really icy," says Phil. "You wouldn't ride a bike without a helmet, so I wouldn't ski without one." His wife Sue adds that it makes her feel far more secure and confident. She says she's seen the benefits of wearing a helmet at first hand:

"A friend of mine, if she hadn't been wearing one, she'd have had a really nasty injury - she was incredibly lucky, as she'd only bought it the day before."

It isn't just safety concerns - and a high-profile death - that have made wearing a helmet more appealing.

Many resorts have made it compulsory for children to wear helmets during their lessons and it's now rare to see anyone under the age of 14 without one. Vail Resorts in Canada, has made helmets compulsory for all its employees this season.

Lower Austria made them compulsory for all children under 14 after the death of a woman in a high-speed collision in January 2009.

Helmets are also compulsory for child skiers in Italy and many ski schools across the Alps insist on them.

Child putting on ski helmet
Helmets are compulsory for children in many places

New technology means that the latest helmet models are very light.

There are many different styles and colours. Some have a space for your iPod or MP3 headphones; others come equipped with head cams.

Prices have come down and one of the best-selling models can be bought for around £50. Whereas helmets were once seen as being a bit geeky, that is not so much the case any more.

But many remain unconvinced. Another holidaymaker in Les Portes du Soleil, Ray Zdanovich, from Slough, says that in 30 years of skiing, he's never seen a reason to wear one:

"For children it's fine but for adults, I think they cause more injuries than they save. If you're wearing a helmet, it affects your hearing and it makes people ski beyond their abilities, because they think that they're safe."

The debate is set to continue, with brain injuries association Headway in discussion with MEPs about how to introduce legislation at European level to make helmets compulsory.

Head injuries

However, medical opinion is divided about how effective they can be in preventing serious injury. Dr Mike Langran, who's a GP in the Scottish resort of Aviemore, has been researching snow sports injuries for 20 years.

He says that although helmet uptake has increased during that time - from around 2% to 60% - there's been no significant decrease in the number of head injuries seen.

"They do protect you well against minor head injuries but there's no conclusive evidence that if you hit a tree or another skier, that it's going to save your life."

He says the overall risk of a serious head injury is so low that to make helmets mandatory is over-the-top.

"A helmet is not a panacea and it doesn't protect you against everything."

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