Death of actress causes debate over ski safety

By Laura McLean

The death of British actress Natasha Richardson while skiing last week has reopened debates over helmet wearing on ski slopes.

A spokesperson for the New York City medical examiner’s office said Richardson died from a blunt impact to the head. Her death was ruled an accident on Thursday after an autopsy was performed.

The actress was reportedly not wearing a helmet when she fell at Mont Tremblant resort in Quebec on Monday. She was transferred to hospital as her condition deteriorated on Monday night and died on Wednesday morning.

And now a jury from the British Association of Snowsports Instructors, BASI, remains divided as to whether or not helmets should be made compulsory on the slopes.

Dr Neil Martin, head of neurosurgery at the UCLA Medical Centre in California told BBC Radio Five Live: “It’s profoundly unusual for a minor head injury, as was described, to result in a life-threatening medical crisis.

“But falling even from a standing position is a six-foot fall as far as your head is concerned, so you can get a tremendous impact if you fall unprotected. So it’s possible to get a severe injury, even from what ostensibly looks like a mild fall.”

But Aviemore based sports injury researcher Doctor Mike Langran thinks people are being too quick to panic over a freak accident. He said

‘”Despite their reputation as dangerous sports, skiing and snowboarding are in fact much safer than most people realise.

The risk of dying from an accident on the slopes is approximately 1 in 1.5 million. As I understand it, Ms Richardson was not wearing a helmet at the time of her fall. Accidents that lead to death are more typically high speed collisions after a loss of control. Unfortunately in such scenarios, the forces involved are usually simply too great for any helmet to cope with.Helmets have been shown to reduce the risks of minor and moderate impacts to the head.”

Following Richardson’s death snow sport shops in Edinburgh have noted a rise in sales of helmets. Freeze pro shop saw their sales almost double. Manager David Bowles said

“A lot of people bought helmets last week. Sales of protective gear have already increased this year. I think that such a high profile accident has really raised awareness of the safety measures that need to be taken when skiing.”

In Italy it is already compulsory for children to wear a helmet and many ski schools insist on it. But medical evidence about the level of protection they can offer is so far inconclusive.

Richardson’s death has been widely reported on snow sports websites. And judging by the response on these sites whether they are made compulsory or not more people will be wearing helmets this season