The fact that Michael Schumacher was wearing a helmet when he suffered a life-threatening head injury while skiing in France on Sunday probably did not come as a surprise to experts who have charted the increasing presence of helmets on slopes and half-pipes in recent years. That the helmet did not prevent Schumacher’s life-threatening injury, which came about after he hit his head on a rock while navigating an off-piste at a French resort, probably did not surprise them, either.
Highlighting an unsettling trend, Schumacher’s injury shows that although more skiers and snowboarders in the United States are wearing helmets than ever — 70 per cent of all participants, nearly triple the number from 2003 — there has been no reduction in the number of snow-sports-related fatalities or brain injuries in the U.S., according to the National Ski Areas Association.
Experts claim skiers and snowboarders are increasingly engaging in risky behaviour: skiing faster, jumping higher and riding out of bounds.
The equipment we have now allows us to do things we really couldn’t do before, and this pushing of limits has superseded prudence, according to Chris Davenport, a professional big-mountain skier.
Dave Byrd, the ski association’s director of risk management, attributed the surge in helmet use to grass-roots efforts by resorts, helmet manufacturers and medical professionals to encourage their use. He also cited growing public awareness about brain injuries, a result of persistent news media attention on the issue in sports and several high-profile skiing fatalities.
While experts admit that helmets have reduced the numbers of the milder head injuries like scalp lacerations by 30 to 50 per cent, growing evidence indicates helmets do not prevent some of the more serious injuries like the tearing of delicate brain tissue, said Jasper Shealy, a professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology. Schumacher’s doctors say he would not have survived his fall had he not worn a helmet.
Mr. Shealy, who has been studying snow-sports-related injuries at Sugarbush resort in Vermont for more than 30 years, said that could be because those injuries typically involve a rotational component that today’s helmets cannot affect. The population most susceptible to this culture is the one that is dying, statistics show. Seventy per cent of snow-sports fatalities involve men in their late teenage years to late thirties, according to the ski association, the same population that most often engages in high-risk behaviours such as rash driving.
Some helmet manufacturers are trying to make helmets safer by introducing technologies that better mitigate some of the forces that cause brain injuries. One such technology, the Multi-directional Impact Protection System, or MIPS, is designed to absorb the rotational forces that produce serious brain injuries.
But some medical professionals contended that wearing a helmet can give skiers and snowboarders a false sense of security. There’s no 100-per-cent prevention of brain injury, said Alan Weintraub, the medical director of the brain injury program at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado. Because the more the head and brain are protected, the greater extent of risk people take, the higher the velocities transmitted to the skull and brain during forceful impact. — New York Times News Service