Racing fans around the world were saddened to hear Michael Schumacher was seriously injured in a skiing accident in France last month. The German Formula One racing driver remains in a medically induced coma after he hit his head on a rock during a fall “off-piste” – backcountry skiing on ungroomed and unmarked slopes.
Luckily for Schumacher, he was wearing a helmet.
“Taking into consideration the very violent shock, his helmet did protect him to a certain extent, of course,” said Prof Jean-Francois Payen, chief anaesthesiologist in Grenoble treating Schumacher. “Somebody who would have this kind of accident without a helmet, certainly he would not have got to here.”
Although most skiers don’t stray from well-maintained runs, it’s important to remember that the risk of hitting rocks off-piste is not the only danger. As more and more skiers pack down the snow, prepared slopes can be as hard as concrete.
Once reserved for Olympic athletes, as concussion awareness has increased, ski and snowboard helmets have become commonplace on the slopes. According to a study by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), helmet usage at U.S. ski areas has increased from 25 percent during the 2002/03 ski season to 70 percent in 2012/13 – setting a new record for helmet usage in the industry.
The NSAA recommends helmets for all skiers and snowboarders and offers these tips:
- Skiing or boarding responsibly is your first priority. Helmets are a second line of defense. Be able to stop or avoid other people or objects and follow “Your Responsibility Code.”
- Helmets can reduce head injuries by 30-50%, and may be the difference between a major and minor injury.
- Do not use bicycle or other helmets on the slopes. Snowsport helmets should meet American (ASTM F2040), European (CEN 1977) or Snell Memorial Foundation (RS-98) standards.
- Helmets do have limitations. Helmets provide the most protection at slower speeds – but most of us ski and snowboard faster. Check your speed.
- For kids, parents should ensure that the helmet is properly fitted and the chinstrap fastened. Learn more at www.lidsonkids.org.
It is important to note helmets offer considerably less protection for serious head injury to snow riders traveling more than 12-14 mph. The National Ski Patrol warns, “Don’t let a helmet give you a false sense of security. When wearing a helmet, ski and snowboard as if you’re not.”
Original reports indicated that Michael Schumacher was going extremely fast, up to 60 mph. However, a skier told the German news magazine Der Spiegel that Schumacher had been going “at a leisurely pace … 20 kmh [12mph] max, not more.”
French officials are examining whether the limits of the ski runs near the accident site were marked correctly and if the rock he hit should have been marked. They are also investigating whether the safety release mechanisms on his skis malfunctioned.
“Unfortunate incident exposes concealed hazards on slopes of off-piste skiing in early part of season” by Conal Urquhart, The Irish Times, December 31, 2013.
“Michael Schumacher was skiing at leisurely pace, says crash witness” by Philip Oltermann and Kim Willsher, The Guardian, January 5, 2014.