In the aftermath of Michael Schumacher’s tragic accident, it does beg the question why on earth wouldn’t you wear a helmet when skiing or snowboarding?
It might seem a given, especially when you consider Schumacher’s helmet reportedly broke in two on impact. According to Chris Chandler, consultant neurosurgeon at King’s College in London, it may have “minimised the severity of injury.” That’s putting it mildly, Schumacher would most probably have been pronounced dead on the scene had he not been wearing one.
A recent study from brain injury charity Headway announced the findings of a study using crash test dummies to examine the potential benefits of helmets for skiers and snowboarders. The results showed that forces exerted on the skull were “four times less” when head protection was worn. A helmet’s liner absorbs a proportion of the impact; the acceleration of the head is reduced; and the impact on the skull is spread over a larger area.
The sticky problem is that there is no official evidence showing that since more people started wearing helmets, the number of head injuries have decreased. Some skiers and snowboarders simply do not wish to wear one as they claim it feels restrictive or limits their sense of freedom when flying down the slopes. Others suggest that wearing one emboldens you to go faster and be more reckless. There might be some truth in this but it’s very hard to prove. Personally I would rather err on the side of the caution and wear one. Surely having your head encased in a protective layer has got to be a good thing should you hit a rock-hard piste, collide with someone else or hit an immovable object such as a tree. I’d never dream of going mountain biking – one of my other favoured pursuits – without a helmet so why would I consider skiing or snowboarding without one? These sports are similarly risky though it’s important to keep things in perspective – the risk overall of injury on the slopes has remained unchanged in recent years at around 2.5 per thousand skiers.
As a parent I would never allow my children (both under five years old) to go skiing without wearing a helmet. I want them to have that extra layer of protection – what parent wouldn’t – and would feel I was acting irresponsibly if I didn’t give it to them. What sort of example would I be setting if I didn’t wear one too?
My personal conversion to helmets came after a week’s learning to snowboard in Morzine, banging my head on the piste one too many times. In the following years I was very thankful to have been wearing one when on separate occasions I skied into a tree, slid down a bumps run and was knocked off my feet by a rogue skier. None of the incidents were life-threatening but the helmet helped prevent one or two nasty bumps and headaches.
To me wearing a helmet is now second nature as it is to increasing numbers of slope users, some 80 per cent in North America, about 50 per cent in Europe. Following Schumacher’s accident I’d imagine many more will follow suit. It’s the responsible decision to take.