Mandatory helmet calls after New Zealand ski deaths

The question of a legal requirement to wear helmets at ski resorts is once again making the news. Two women have already died this season in New Zealand, prompting more calls for ski and snowboard helmets to become mandatory requirements. Both deaths occurred in out-of-bounds areas at Mt Hutt, and involved falls of between 130m and 500m, with the skiers then hitting rocks.

The Christchurch Hospital’s head neurosurgeon Martin Macfarlane, campaigned for compulsory cycle helmets, and believes that the same should happen with ski helmets. Stuff.co.nz reports Macfarlane as considering that, one or two of the “more than several” skiers and snowboarders that he sees each year with brain injuries will die. Apart from helping to reduce the number of deaths, proponents believe that they help reduce longer term disabilities, including memory loss and paralysis.

Mt Hutt already provides free helmets for it’s outdoor staff, and makes them either compulsory or strongly recommended depending upon the terrain and job involved. Other high profile resorts, such as Vail (Colorado) have a mandatory helmet policy for some staff. At present the official New Zealand Government line is to recommend the wearing of helmets by all skiers and snowboarders, but there is no legal requirement.

Writing for the telegraph.co.uk web site; Boris Johnson is clearly not a supporter of mandatory ski helmets. He considers the advances in ski, binding and boot technology as the main reasons for reduced fatalities rather than the more widespread wearing of helmets. He is also keen to be ‘at one’ with the mountains: “It is my humble but deep belief that it should involve the maximum communion with nature, and that means no helmet for me.” Indeed, the same was argued for not wearing motorbike helmets. Questioning whether James Bond wears a helmet when attempting to shake off SMERSH henchmen is however not one of Boris’ more reasoned arguments.

The more widespread availability of ski helmets has seemingly gone along with an emphasis as much on ‘added value’ as it has on safety. Helmets now come in many and varied colours and patterns and ‘extras’ such as fur, headphone facilities, and air vents. Thus allowing the user to proclaim their allegiance to any number of clans: skate punks, urban crews, speed demons, cartoon lovers, girly girls, macho types and a myriad of others. This has led some to claim that promotion of helmet wearing has become more of a fashion/merchandise/profit driven entity, rather than on purely safety grounds.

There does however seem to be little scientific evidence to support the wearing of helmets as a means of directly preventing skiing and snowboard deaths. In 2009, Professor Jasper Shealy (et al) published the paper ‘Do Helmets Reduce Fatalities or Merely Alter the Patterns of Death?’, in the American Society for Testing and Materials journal (ASTM – one of the largest voluntary standards organisations in the world). The paper contended [that] “The results indicate that the use of a helmet will indeed influence the primary cause of death, but perhaps not the ultimate outcome.” He did note that helmet uptake has risen to 40% of skiers and snowboarders, but also that “while helmets may be effective at preventing minor injuries, they have not been shown to reduce the overall incidence of fatality”.

For recreational skiers and snowboarders, at present helmet wearing seems to be largely a case of personal choice. Further evidenced studies can only help make such a choice more informed.

* Update: One of the victims, Dimity Anne Tomkins who fell 500 metres and died in Christchurch Hospital, was wearing a helmet. Police, and Mt Hutt’s own, investigations are still ongoing.

images: vail resort & nzski.com

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