Richardson's death reignites ski helmet debate

CANBERRA Wed Mar 18, 2009 11:04pm EDT

CANBERRA (Reuters) - The death of British actress Natasha Richardson from a severe brain injury following a skiing accident has reignited the debate over helmets on ski slopes.

Richardson, 45, a member of Britain's Redgrave acting dynasty, fell during a private skiing lesson on a beginners' slope at Canada's Mont Tremblant resort on Monday. She died in New York on Wednesday, surrounded by her family.

Her death came about 10 years after singer-turned-politician Sonny Bono and Michael L. Kennedy, son of assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, died after skiing into trees at high speed and not wearing a helmet.

Richardson was reportedly not wearing a helmet.

Helmets, once rarely seen on skiers or snowboarders, have become increasingly popular but the jury remains divided on their effectiveness and whether their use should be compulsory.

Some medical groups, including the Association of Quebec Emergency Room Doctors, have called for helmets to be mandatory, claiming 60 percent of head traumas could be avoided, and some countries are introducing laws over helmet use for children.

Jeff Hanle, a spokesman for the Aspen Skiing company that runs resorts in Colorado, said all children under 12 at Aspen ski schools had to wear helmets but otherwise it was not mandatory.

"We recommend helmet use for everyone for we don't require it for adults. It is not for the industry to regulate," said Hanle.

"Children are growing up wearing helmets and they are continuing to use them as they grow and more adults are also using them. The technology has got better which has helped."

But has it stopped injuries?

"It doesn't stop people from crashing and it's hard to say if the injuries are less severe because of helmets," he said.

LAWS OVER HELMETS

Some skiers and snowboarders resist wearing helmets, complaining they are too hot or muffle sounds, while some fear it encourages risky behavior by giving a false sense of security.

Sales of helmets in Germany have doubled since a skiing accident in the Austrian resort of Styria in January which left one woman dead and German politician Dieter Althaus seriously injured, his life believed to be saved as he wore a helmet.

Austria, which has recorded about 30 ski-related deaths this season, is now introducing a new law requiring all children under 14 to wear helmets on the slopes.

The Australian Ski Areas Association supports wearing helmets but says the decision is a personal or parental choice as helmets are most effective at providing protection at speeds of under 20 kmph and may not stop or reduce serious injuries at high speeds.

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) of the United States estimated 43 percent of skiers and snowboarders wore helmets in the 2007/08 season against 25 percent five years ago.

The NSAA urges skiers and riders to wear a helmet but stresses that people's behavior on the slopes counts most, with skiing and snowboarding no more dangerous than other high-energy participation sports, with 39 deaths on average a year.

It cited researcher Jason Shealy, who studies ski-related injuries and found recent research indicated helmets cut the incidence of any head injuries by 30 to 50 percent but these were the minor injuries and wearing helmets had not cut fatalities.

"The increase in the use of helmets has not reduced the overall number of skiing fatalities," said the NSAA in a statement. "More than half of the people involved in fatal accidents last season were wearing helmets."

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)