In the ski industry we love to go toe to toe on a debate.
Which are better, fingered gloves or mittens?
Is the best après in Europe the Mooserwirt in Austria or the Folie Douce in France?
And dare I ask, which is the better snowsport, skiing or snowboarding?
I’m willing to bet that all of you out there who love the mountains have been involved in at least one of the above discussions at some point. For each of these arguments new evidence is presented every year in the hope of crowning a victor. Ask any of the above questions in any ski bar in the world and you’re guaranteed to get one or two passionate responses.
With this in mind, Chris, Product Manager for Austria, wants to discuss another age old ski debate. One that is hotly contested both in the media and on the slopes…
The great debate
Currently this is a debate that’s getting a lot of media attention due to the tragic accident involving Michael Schumacher. The neurosurgeon treating Schumacher said that without a helmet he would have been unlikely to survive the crash. Interestingly this blog was written before this happened, so I’m going to discuss both sides of the helmet argument to provide you with the information to make your own decision. As a measure of transparency I will admit…i’m pro helmets.
The winter season witnesses a fair share of accidents. Twisted ankles and pulled ligaments are always going to be a factor when flying down a steep icy slope at gravity defying speeds. Interestingly, the majority of accidents occur not on black or red runs but on blues and greens.
In my first winter season, a fellow seasonnaire was involved in an accident on a blue run without a helmet. What looked like a simple fall at the time turned much more serious when we realised they had knocked their head. Trauma to the head can cause a number of physical, emotional or behavioural side effects. In this case, our colleague suffered several weeks of amnesia after the accident. Thankfully they made a full recovery, but the lasting impression left on our group meant that the local shops turned a healthy profit on helmet sales that winter. That was nearly 10 years ago To this day I still never hit the slopes without my lid
This story isn’t unique. In recent years tragic deaths, such as the actress Natasha Richardson, have brought the helmet debate front and centre in the media. The Telegraph recently reported on a study by the Transport Research Laboratory – in which they tested head on ski or snowboard collisions. They concluded a 19mph collision without a helmet could prove fatal whereas a 12mph crash could cause serious head injury. The G force of an impact can be felt up to four times stronger without a helmet.
With studies like the above freely available it’s no surprise that helmet use has increased. Austrian experts predict 60-70% of people now use helmets. Switzerland estimates their figure closer to 84%. The American National Ski Area Association has reported a 171% increase in the last ten years. Most recently, Whistler Blackcomb announced in Dec 2013 that all employees who work on skis and snowboards will now be required to wear helmets on the mountain. Even more surprising is that much of the community in Whistler is already onboard with the idea. It’s been reported in 2011 that 70 % of employees were already wearing a helmet on the hill during their personal time. The growth in helmet use over the past decade has triggered fashionable ski companies to get involved. The current market caters for huge selections of colour, style and shapes with everything from built-in goggles to speakers for your iPod.
But not everyone agrees.
Although its clear more people are aware of the risks and are choosing to wear a helmet, research hasn’t shown an actual reduction in fatalities. In 2009 in the United States over half of those involved in fatalities while skiing were wearing a helmet. Many insurance companies don’t require a use of a helmet. Many people have been skiing for 30 years without a helmet without a problem and as such aren’t likely to start now – often citing the growth of helmets in the industry as a consequence of health and safety gone mad.
My two personal favourite quotes from this topic come from a friend and a French ski instructor.
A colleague remarked that she doesn’t wear a helmet because “I’m not a snowboarder”. When pushed further on the subject she confidently informed me its only snowboarders who need a helmet since they fall over the most.
A French ski instructor once told me (while proudly standing in his beanie) that a helmet is not needed since a qualified instructor shouldn’t be falling over in the first place. The French ski instructor raised an interesting point – and there are still many professional competing in snow sports who don’t wear a helmet. After all shouldn’t we be mimicking the instructor? If instructors don’t need helmets then is there any real need for anyone else?
No matter how experienced you are though, there are many people on the slopes more akin to a runaway train than a precision skier. Sometimes you can’t see the accident happening until it happens.
Others claim that rather than reducing accidents, wearing a helmet can increase the risk. There is some evidence to suggest that skiers and boarders are more likely to take risks while wearing a helmet. That added feeling of security can lead to faster speeds and overconfidence ,which can ultimately lead to the very impact the helmet was meant to prevent. Furthermore some studies have implied that wearing a helmet can increase neck trauma, although this evidence is hotly debated.
Even with a helmet, the risks are still high. Professional freestyle skier Sarah Burke – who competed six times in the X games – sadly passed away from a brain injury after suffering an accident on the half pipe while wearing a helmet. While helmets reduce the risk they can never match the speed or the force of impact in some accidents.
So why don’t people wear helmets? Surely it’s just a case of getting people to understand the dangers of the mountain…Or is it?
While researching this article I had a conversation with a colleague who is pro-helmet but yet doesn’t wear one. She fully recognises the risks as well as the benefits, but considers helmets to be sweaty and clumsy – not forgetting the dreaded helmet hair. The attitude towards helmet use can be very similar to anything with health consequences – the risks are understood but not always heeded.
For example, everyone understands junk food is bad for you but who can resist? I can’t blame them. On a blue bird day in spring, having the wind rush through your hair is exhilarating and the debate about the warmth of a hat vs. helmet is a separate discussion in itself. What it does highlight, is an education of the risks in the mountains isn’t the only factor that people consider when choosing to lid up or not.
With the media fuelling a push towards compulsory helmets and more people every year choosing to don one, realistically it comes down to a personal choice. One that I’m sure you’ll debate along with the many others as the snow continues to fall. For me the choice is already made and I’ll be clipping on and well as clipping in as the winter goes on.