— -- Actress Natasha Richardson's death from a head injury this week after a seemingly minor tumble on a beginners ski trail at Quebec's Mont Tremblant Ski Resort has renewed a debate over helmet use by skiers and snowboarders — and whether wearing one might have saved her life.
Richardson, who was not using a helmet, fell during a lesson on Monday. After complaining of a headache about an hour later, she was transferred to hospitals in Montreal and New York City, where she died Wednesday.
Though North American ski resorts don't require helmet use, most offer free or low-cost rentals, and helmets are often standard for children in ski schools, says Troy Hawks of the National Ski Areas Association. At Colorado's Aspen/ Snowmass, ski school students 12 and under must wear helmets; at Vail, parents of students 14 and under must decline helmet use in writing.
At Mont Tremblant and nine other ski resorts owned by Canada-based Intrawest, "we recommend all skiers and boarders wear helmets, (but) it is a matter of personal preference whether our guests chose to do so," says spokesman Ian Galbraith.
Quebec, meanwhile, is considering making ski helmets mandatory. Jean-Pascal Bernier, a spokesman for Quebec's sport and leisure minister, told the Associated Press that Richardson's death has added impetus to plans already in the works.
The use of helmets has increased dramatically since celebrities Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy, son of Robert F. Kennedy, were killed within a week of each other in skiing accidents 11 years ago. Neither was wearing a helmet.
According to a study by the National Ski Areas Association, 43% of U.S. skiers and snowboarders overall wore helmets last winter, up from 25% during the 2002/2003 season. Use increases with skiers' and riders' ability levels: Only 26% of beginners wear them, but 38% of intermediates and 55% of experts do so.
Fifty-three people died on U.S. slopes last year, and 25 of those skiers and riders were wearing helmets, Hawks says. But sports-injury experts say ski helmets cut the rate of head injuries by 30% to 50% — and are particularly valuable when participants fall and suffer a glancing blow to the head on hard-packed snow.
"If you hit a lift tower in a high-speed accident, a helmet isn't going to be much use," says physician Robert Williams, director of the Vermont Snow Sports Research Team and associate professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. "But if you fall and hit your head, you're going to be better off in a helmet.
"It's much safer to spend the day skiing than to spend it in front of the Nintendo eating snacks," Williams adds. "But there's a risk with any outdoor activity, and we need to mitigate those risks as much as possible. … A tragedy like this will reinvigorate the discussion."