A burning question from a blog by Ben Sherwood about Natasha Richardson's tragic death featured today on HuffPost.
4. Could a Helmet Have Saved Richardson?
The answer is maybe, but it's too soon to tell. In general, helmets are helpful, but they aren't perfect. "The sad fact is that we now have 45-50 percent of the snow sports population using helmets," Dr. Shealy explains, "but the fatality rate has not changed." Over all, the rate of head injury has declined 35 to 45 percent, he goes on. That's because helmets are very effective at preventing head lacerations and other less serious head injuries. However, helmets "are less effective for more serious head injuries that typically involve greater kinetic energy and/or speed."
Most fatalities are the result of relatively high speed impact (probably greater than 27 mph) with a fixed object (like a tree), Dr. Shealy notes. "Under those circumstances, it will probably take more than a helmet to save your life," he says.
"I agree with the proposition that everyone should wear a helmet while engaging in a winter snow sport," he concludes. "If you hit a tree at typical maximum skiing speeds, you will still probably die, but if you fell on hard-pack snow (a much more likely scenario) and hit your head on the hard surface, a helmet can likely change what would likely be a serious head injury into a minor, less serious head injury."
In addition, Dr. Shealy's work suggests that helmets may actually encourage riskier behavior among some skiers -- because they feel safer -- and lead to more severe injuries. However, Dr. Shealy says that's not a good reason to skip wearing a helmet. "I encourage everyone to wear a helmet, but ski (or snowboard) as if you were not wearing a helmet. I don't know if realistically anyone can do that, since I suspect that the increased level of risk-taking is sub-conscious."