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More Helmet Fearmongering

Fresh from incurring the wrath of the bicycle community, California State Senator Leland Yee is now setting his sights on the ski community:

SB 880, as introduced, Yee. Public safety: snow sport helmets.

Existing law requires a person under 18 years of age to wear a
properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet while operating a bicycle
or riding upon a bicycle as a passenger upon the streets or any
other public bicycle path.

This bill would require a person under 18 years of age to wear a
properly fitted and fastened snow sport helmet while operating snow skies or a snowboard, or while riding upon a seat or other device that is attached to the snow skies or a snowboard. The bill would provide for fines to be imposed for violations of this prohibition.

What is the actual cost/benefit here?

On average, 39.8 persons have died skiing/snowboarding each year. To put in perspective, more Americans are killed by lightning strikes.

The comparison with bike helmets is apt. Ski helmets have similar design limitations as bike helmets. The standards only test for collision speeds less than 12mph, whereas most head fatalities occur at speeds considerably higher. Thus, even increasing use of helmets on the slopes will not have the effect that helmet promoters claim:

In the 1998/99 part of the study, Shealy and colleagues followed the deaths as they happened and found that, where the information was available, 35% of individuals who died were wearing a helmet. This is much higher than the rate of helmet use amongst the general population on the piste. Two of the deaths amongst snowboarders resulted from them being struck by young skiers wearing helmets who had jumped without being able to see where they would land.

Shealy et al conclude “…the findings are not particularly supportive of the notion that wearing helmets will significantly reduce the number of fatalities in winter snow sports”. This was supported by a presentation at the last ISSS meeting by the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Vermont, USA – Dr Paul L. Morrow. Dr Morrow was of the opinion that of 54 deaths at commercial ski areas in Vermont from 1979/80 to 1997/98, helmets would not have been of any particular value in saving any of the lives lost – as the degree of trauma simply overwhelmed any benefits that the helmet might convey in an impact. To quote Shealy et al again – a team of highly respected ski injury researchers – “On the basis of results to date, there is no clear evidence that helmets have been shown to be an effective means of reducing fatalities in alpine sports”.

Its a sobering fact that more than half of the people involved in fatal accidents last season at ski areas in the USA were wearing helmets at the time of the incident (Source – NSAA). As Shealy states “[E]ven though the prevalence of helmet utilization is rising by 4 to 5 percent per year in the U.S., there has been no statistically significant observable effect on the incident of fatality.”

In another recent scientific publication, Shealy and his colleagues found that the most common primary injury in ski and snowboarding fatalities is some sort of head injury – approximately 60 percent of ski fatalities involve a head injury. However, it is critical to place this into its proper context. “While some sort of head injury is usually the first listed cause of death, most of the fatalities also involve multiple, or secondary trauma sites; single causes of death are not common.” Most fatalities appear to occur under circumstances that are likely to exceed the protective capacity of current helmets designed for recreational snow sports. (Source – “Do Helmets Reduce Fatalities or merely Alter the Patterns of Death?” Shealy, J., Johnson, R., and Ettlinger, C., 2008)

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