In this blog Adam Lovatt looks at the issue of head injuries in skiing and cycling and considers what developments there might be in the near future as governing bodies try to grapple with this increasingly discussed issue.
The recent skiing accident which Michael Schumacher had in the French Alps has once again raised the issue of whether people on the slopes should be required to wear a ski helmet. In Schumacher's case, it is thought that the helmet he was wearing saved his life. On average 24-26 people die each winter in France alone from avalanches, highlighting the dangerous nature of winter sports.1 Whilst these deaths cannot be directly attributed to head injuries, the death of Natasha Richardson in 2009 saw a boom in the sales of ski helmets2 and the same may result from the high profile accident Schumacher has suffered.
The wife of James Cracknell, who suffered serious head injuries in a bicycle accident in the USA in 2010, has written in the wake of the Schumacher accident how the wearing of a bicycle helmet saved the life of the former Olympic rower and how children should be made to wear helmets when on a bike and the slopes.3 Beverley Turner has powerfully argued that if kids wear helmets from an early age, they will continue wearing them as they enter adult life and will hopefully encourage their children to follow suit.
A high profile American study published in 2012 indicated that if skiers and snowboarders wore helmets, the risk and severity of head injuries would be reduced.4 In California, attempts to make the wearing of helmets on ski slopes compulsory for those aged 16 and under has been vetoed by two Governors in that State.5 Only New Jersey, in the USA, has legislation in place for skiers aged 18 and under to wear head protection. In Europe both Italy and Austria have legislation in place for children active on their slopes. Nova Scotia in Canada has gone further than anywhere else in the world, by making it compulsory for everyone using their slopes to wear head protection, regardless of age.6 This, on the basis of studies which have been carried out, would appear to be a benchmark which could and should be followed by other resorts (even by making the renting of helmets widely available and compulsory when other equipment is rented on site).
Remarkably, only Australia (in the Australian Road Rules) and New Zealand (in the Land Transport (Road User) Rules) have legislation in place, dating from 1989 and 1993 respectively, making the wearing of helmets compulsory for cyclists, regardless of age. Other countries such as Canada and Japan have legislation in place for the wearing of helmets by children but not for adults. No such legislation is in place in the United Kingdom.
The current government in the United Kingdom is pushing for 10% of all journeys are to be made by bike by 2025 and Sir Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour de France winner, is among those advocating that the wearing of helmets is made compulsory for cyclists in this country.7 In London in particular, a spate of deaths in 2013 has resulted in much discussion as to cycling safety.8 Whilst helmets are not going to prevent all cycling injuries or deaths, it would certainly add an element of safety to cyclists and if one death could be prevented, that would surely be better than doing nothing at all.
There is of course a danger that some people believe that wearing helmets will make them immune to injury, both on ski slopes and on bikes, and that complacency may become a problem for those who believe that they are better at a particular activity than they really are as a result of wearing head protection. Proper education should be given to those who are active on the slopes or on our roads together with the introduction of some form of legislation, possibly driven by the European Union in its Member States or by the governing bodies of sports. The International Ski Federation introduced tougher regulations for ski helmets at the start of this season and standards which ski helmets should comply with.9 However, there is no regulation in place from this governing body requiring all skiers to wear helmets on the slopes. British Cycling recommends that a helmet is worn for non-competitive cycling but emphasises that it is down to individual choice if a helmet is worn or not.10
As the cases of Cracknell and Schumacher have shown, helmets can save lives if used properly. This has to be the underlying lesson to be learnt as we enter a year where winter sports (through the Winter Olympics in Sochi) and the Tour de France (which commences in Yorkshire) attract more attention than ever before in this country and more people may be encouraged to take up sports where an element of danger, as recent events have shown, clearly exists.