News that a UK-based travel insurer found more of its clients were more likely to wear a helmet while on a winter sports holiday is encouraging for the industry, showing that more care will be taken by snow-bound tourists. However, is the research substantiated by other sources? ITIJ found out
The original research from Alpha Travel Insurance found that when asked whether or not Michael Schumacher’s accident would prompt winter sports enthusiasts to wear a helmet, 88 per cent of beginners said yes, as did 76 per cent of novices and 73 per cent of pros. Encouraging figures, for sure. However, when asked who actually wears all the appropriate safety gear, including a helmet, the percentages dropped. For beginners, 83 per cent wore all the gear, followed by 66 per cent of novices and 64 per cent of pros.
ABTA – formerly known as the Association of British Travel Agents – reported last year that British skiers and snowboarders are ‘more likely than ever’ to wear a helmet on the slopes: “ABTA members are seeing increased interest from people in safety equipment, both to hire and to purchase. This is particularly the case for ski helmets, with experienced skiers and snowboarders more likely than ever to purchase their own.”
The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) in the US stated in September of last year that helmet usage in US ski resorts increased during the 2013-2014 ski season, finding that 73 per cent of skiers and snowboarders wore helmets during that season, setting a record for helmet usage. Michael Berry, president of NSAA, said: “Ski areas have done an incredible job of encouraging helmet use, and it shows in the dramatic growth we have seen in just over a decade of tracking helmet usage. The resorts, parents, local media groups, even the tremendous improvements by helmet manufacturers to enhance the design and comfort – all these factors have helped grow helmet usage.” When the NSAA began its helmet research in 2002-2003, just 25 per cent of skiers and snowboarders used helmets, so there’s no doubt there has been a dramatic increase between then and the 73 per cent counted in the 2013-2014 season. “When you think how much we have achieved organically as an industry, without government mandates requiring helmets, it’s quite impressive.” New Jersey remains the only state requiring skiers under the age of 18 to wear a helmet.
Much of the research that has been undertaken into helmet efficacy found that they are most effective at preventing serious injuries in children, and when one considers how many more children are lucky enough to be taken on a skiing holiday these days compared to 20 years ago, it is perhaps no surprise that more and more parents are being fastidious about making their kids wear protection. According to the NSAA’s figures, 80 per cent of skiers and snowboarders aged 17 and under wore helmets in the 2013-2014 season, a figure that rises to 88 per cent for children under the age of nine. The age group least likely to wear helmets is that wonderful group of ‘invincibles’ that regular readers of ITIJ will recognise – those aged between 18 and 24 who believe that they are untouchable – but even here, 62 per cent wore helmets. Just 10 years ago, only 18 per cent of this group wore helmets. Said the NSAA study: “In the past 12 years, the growth in helmet usage has been remarkable. Since the 2002-03 season, helmet use has nearly tripled, with usage rates increasing by 180 per cent.” Berry stated: “As an industry, we are deservedly proud of our commitment to safety, and the efforts to promote helmet use by both ski areas and parent alike should be applauded. At the same time, though, we want to stress that skiing and riding safely and responsibly – and not simply donning one piece of equipment – is the best way to prevent incidents and injuries out on the mountain.”
Marion Telsnig, spokesperson for Crystal Ski, a trading name of TUI UK Ltd, and one of the largest providers of winter sports holidays, said that although there aren’t any hard facts on offer, it’s clear to see the change in mentality from 10 years ago, when just five to 10 per cent of people on the mountain would wear helmets. According to Telsnig, well over 50 per cent of skiers and snowboarders now use them. Crystal Ski advises its customers to wear them, and also recommends that its employees use them while on the slopes as well.
Whys and wherefores
Why are more people wearing helmets now? Is it the Michael Schumacher effect? Other high-profile fatalities following injuries while skiing such as Sonny Bono and Natasha Richardson also put the media spotlight on skiing safety, which certainly helps to create awareness in the general public that skiing, even slowly, can be more dangerous than many think. By putting the issue of safety in the minds of winter sports enthusiasts, they are encouraged to take responsibility for their safety and maybe even do some research into the medical studies that have been carried out with regards to helmet efficacy.
In 2012, Johns Hopkins-led research suggested that the use of helmets by skiers and snowboarders decreases the risk and severity of head injuries and saves lives, debunking long-held beliefs by some that the use of helmets gives athletes a false sense of security and promotes dangerous behaviour that might increase injuries. “There really is a great case to be made for wearing helmets,” says Dr Adil H. Haider, M.P.H., an associate professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the leader of the study published in the November 2012 issue of the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery. “By increasing awareness and giving people scientific proof, we hope behaviour changes will follow.”
The design of helmets has also improved in recent years, according to Coggin Hill, freeride ski and snowboard director for the Mt Bachelor Sports Education Foundation, a nonprofit organisation that supports alpine, cross country and snowboard race training and competition. Hill said: “For me, I think it’s more comfortable to wear a helmet. If you crash or fall, you won’t lose your goggles and beanie. A helmet doesn’t come off. With the lightweight technology now, you don’t even notice you’re wearing a helmet. And with the music and the ear-pad speakers, people like riding with music. They are a lot more convenient than they used to be. They even have Bluetooth now, so you don’t even need a cord.”
Knee-jerk reaction or genuine change?
Iona Bentley, sports manager for Winter Games NZ, and has skied all over the world during the past 25 years, says that high-profile accidents do have an effect on the general skiing public. She told ITIJ: “I would imagine the Schumacher incident will have an impact on the increased use of helmets, especially amongst a certain demographic – however, I would say that the majority of skiers and snowboarders are already wearing helmets. There are a number of factors in this development. In terms of high-profile incidents, I think Natasha Richardson’s death in 2009 had significantly more impact that Schumacher’s accident. Her death was not a result of a high speed crash off piste, and therefore brought home the inherent dangers of the sport, even at a low level. I saw a marked change in the attitude of my parents and grandparents generation at around this point. They all wear helmets now, having skied their whole lives without them.” Other factors also play a part in society’s changing viewpoint regarding the wearing of helmets, added Bentley: “The number of people on the slopes, increased presence of snowboarders, and resort attitudes to safety and fear of litigation all contribute as well.”
The question of whether or not Michael Schumacher’s tragic accident, from which he is slowly recovering, according to reports, will be the impetus people need to make them wear a helmet is up for debate. Some people who were perhaps considering it for their next holiday might well decide that this year will be the one when they do actually wear a helmet. Others will continue to wear them, smug in the knowledge that they were taking safety precautions before it was ‘cool’ to do so. Inevitably, though, there will always be a proportion of skiers and snowboarders who consider themselves to be immune from danger. What is encouraging, though, is the increasing number of people who do wear a helmet, whether in the US, Europe or New Zealand.