Celeb Skiing Tragedy Highlights Risks

High-profile ski accidents raise safety questions but numbers remain stable.

ByABC News
March 17, 2009, 1:33 PM

March 19, 2009— -- Just how safe are you on the slopes? Actress Natasha Richardson's death in a skiing accident at the Mont Tremblant ski resort in Quebec, Canada, has revived questions about the safety of alpine skiing.

Doctors say numbers are hard to come by, but studies suggest that while skiing overall has become safer because of better equipment, the number of deaths -- mostly from severe head injuries -- seems to be on the rise.

"We are concerned," said Dr. Charles Tator, a Toronto neurosurgeon and the founder of ThinkFirst Canada, a safety group. He headed a 2007 study in which he and three colleagues looked at reports of ski-related injuries around the world.

"The overall number of injuries of all sorts -- broken legs, broken arms and so forth -- is going down," he said. In the 1970s, it was estimated there were five to eight injuries per thousand days people spent on the slopes; today, Tator says, it has dropped to 2-3.

"But to the best of our ability to find out," he said, "the numbers of deaths are going up."

Most of those injuries, he said, are to the head and neck. He blamed many of them on risk-taking -- skiers who try aerial stunts or disregard other skiers.

Tator said skiing statistics are not regularly compiled. There is far less information on alpine skiing worldwide, he said, than on sports such as football in the United States or hockey in Canada.

Tator and his colleagues, writing in the journal Injury Prevention, examined data from 10 countries. They found that head injuries comprised 15 percent of injuries sustained by skiers in 2007, compared with 12 percent in 1993.

They also said that wearing a helmet can reduce the risk of serious brain injury by 22 percent to 60 percent.

Richardson reportedly took a tumble on a beginner's slope, and did not think, at first, that she had done herself any harm. Doctors not involved in the case say it is possible she had a pre-existing condition that made her vulnerable in a fall. Her family, requesting privacy, has not released medical details.

A spokesperson for the Canada resort where Richardson fell said she was not wearing a helmet and helmets are not required on the mountain.

Experts, however, caution that helmets are not the be-all and end-all.

"Helmets are a mixed blessing," said Dr. Douglas Hill, a Denver emergency physician, member of the American College of Emergency Physicians and former ski patrol member.

He encourages skiers to use helmets but said that while they help, they work best when skiers are traveling up to 15 mph. Some skiers, thinking they are invincible with a helmet on, may travel faster and take more risks, thereby putting themselves in more danger.

"It's a safe sport. But you have to be careful," he said.

Hill said he had also seen more head injuries come through his emergency room in recent years.

Still, the skiing industry maintains that though celebrity accidents often renew conversations about safety, skiing is no more hazardous than in the past or than for other sports, such as swimming and mountain biking.

Some other prominent people killed or severely injured on the slopes in recent years:

Sonny Bono, the singer who first gained fame as part of the husband-wife group Sonny and Cher, later became a Republican congressman from Southern California.

He was killed after he hit a tree at Heavenly Ski Resort near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Jan. 5, 1998. His epitaph is the title of one of his most popular songs: "And the Beat Goes On."

Kennedy died in a 1997 skiing accident near Aspen, Colo.

Princess Caroline of Monaco was skiing at an exclusive ski resort in the Austrian Alps, in 2001, when a skier crashed into her while she was with an instructor. The princess, who is the eldest daughter of American film actress Grace Kelly, was airlifted to a private clinic where a keyhole operation repaired her torn knee ligament.

Supermodel Christie Brinkley hurt her back during a 2006 ski trip in Aspen, Colo. The CoverGirl cosmetics model reportedly noticed something was wrong after she fell while skiing. A doctor's visit revealed that she was very close to severing her spinal cord, Brinkley told "Extra." In February 2007, she underwent surgery to address the problem.

Dieter Althaus, 50, is a German politician, the president of the central German state of Thuringia. On Jan. 1, 2009, he was skiing in Styria, Austria, when he reportedly wandered from an expert run onto a beginner's course and collided with a 41-year-old woman, Beata Christandl.

He was wearing a helmet, but she was not. She later died. Althaus, who was seriously injured, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He was fined 33,000 euros (about $41,000), and ordered to pay an additional 5,000 euros to Christandl's husband.

"Depending on whose numbers you use, there are 8 [million] to 10 million regular skiers in America," said Greg Ditrinco, the executive editor of Ski Magazine in Boulder, Colo., "and the number of serious injuries and deaths is low.

"In the last five to eight years skiers have been using shorter, wider skis," he said. "The gear revolution has put people on terrain they would not have been on 10 or 15 years ago. They're skiing more of the mountain."

"But we've done stories over the years about how safe it is -- how it's safer than riding a bike or swimming, things like that," he said.