Actress death sure to revive helmet debate

Natasha Richardson 1963 - 2009

Natasha Richardson 1963 - 2009

Even though her tumble resulted in no major visible injury, and even though it occurred on a bunny slope under the gaze of an instructor, the death today of Tony Award-winning actress Natasha Richardson will surely revive the debate over helmet use, which exploded a decade ago after a pair of on-slope celebrity deaths.

The push for ski helmets took off after Michael Kennedy died playing ski football in Aspen on New Year’s Eve 1997. Singer, Senator, and former Cher spouse Sonny Bono followed him to the grave less than a week later in Heavenly.

Since that double whammy, helmet use has soared. According to the National Ski Areas Association, 43 percent of U.S. skiers and boarders now wear helmets, a climb of three percentage points from a year earlier and a whopping 72 percent jump from the 2002/03 season when just 25 percent of snowsports enthusiasts sported lids.

Nonetheless, plenty of skiers and snowboarders die wearing the devices. In fact, according to the Association’s own safety page, helmets — at least as they’re currently designed — have yet to reduce the annual number of deaths in the sport.

During the past 10 years, the average death toll has been 40, according to the Association. The deaths always follows a pattern in adrenaline sports: the victims are frequently young and male. Last season, for instance, 46 of the 53 fatalities were male. (Though Snowshoe’s lone death this season tragically broke that pattern.)

In November, the first major scholarly article appeared to address the question of whether helmets reduce fatalities, “Do Helmets Reduce Fatalities or Merely Altern the Patterns of Death?,” answered with a big fat no. Here’s the abstract:

“The use of helmets has been proposed as a means of reducing the incidence of fatality in skiing and snowboarding. This paper presents results that suggest that while helmets may be effective at preventing minor injuries, they have not been shown to reduce the overall incidence of fatality in skiing and snowboarding even though as many as 40 % of the population at risk are currently using helmets. The results indicate that the use of a helmet will indeed influence the primary cause of death, but perhaps not the ultimate outcome.”

Debate on!

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3 responses to “Actress death sure to revive helmet debate”

  1. snowgirl

    Everywhere I go people are talking about this and not just skiers. The salesman at Blue Ridge Mt. Sports in Charlottesville is a big helmet fan and doesn’t believe the stats that helmets don’t prevent fatalities. He pointed out that for different sports there are different kinds of helmets. His son had the same fracture of the neck ,C2/C3, as Christopher Reeve, and suffered no serious injuries in an accident where he was catapulted over the handle bars of his mountain bike. His neurosurgeon claimed his helmet saved him.

  2. Post-Richardson, Vail mandates helmets for kids, employees

    [...] the ski-related death of actress Natasha Richardson, Vail Resorts has made helmets mandatory equipment for employees at [...]

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