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Would a Ski Helmet Have Saved Natasha Richardson?

We're all so sad today about actress Natasha Richardson's untimely death following what appeared to be a minor ski accident. My thoughts are with her family, especially her husband and their two teenage sons.

Richardson in May 2008. (AP)
A New York medical examiner has now determined that Richardson died from "blunt trauma" to the head. That awful event has got people talking -- again -- about ski helmets, whether skiers and snowboarders should be required to wear them, whether a helmet would have prevented Richardson's death.

Apparently the use of ski helmets has risen dramatically since the widely publicized ski-accident deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy in 1998. But it's not clear whether that's resulted in fewer ski-related head injuries or deaths.

The closest thing to a consensus I can piece together is this: Kids and adults alike should probably wear ski helmets. But those helmets aren't likely to help much in high-speed accidents; they are actually most useful in slow-speed situations (probably much like Richardson's beginner-slope accident). In any case, skiers wearing helmets shouldn't view that protection as a license to take stupid risks: When skiing with a helmet, experts advise, behave as if you WEREN'T wearing one.

Let's hear from you, skiers and snowboarders: do you wear a helmet? Do you insist that your kids do?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  March 19, 2009; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , General Health  
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My wife and I stopped skiing for over a decade after our first child was born. Back then, no one we knew wore helmets and we did not either. When we started skiing again with our kids, we insisted that they have helmets in large part because the other family we were with had helmets for their kids. I did not get a helmet for myself, however, until after I got run down from behind by an out of control snowboarder. Fortunately, the bulk of the impact was absorbed by one of my ski bindings. Unfortunately, the steel binding was so bent and twisted by the impact that I couldn't get the boot out of the binding, which needed to be replaced. I would have been dead if I had been on the ground and he had hit my head. I resolved at that moment to get a ski helmet. I've never looked back. They are actually very comfortable. They keep you warm when it's really cold. Nor are they too hot because the better ones have vents that you can open on warmer days or if you are doing an especially challenging run. From my perspective, the helmet is now as much a part of my basic ski equipment as my skis, boots and poles.

Posted by: hamtech | March 19, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

As a physician and ex-ski instructor, I recommend that everyone wear a helmet while engaged in any sport where one can fall onto a hard surface, or can fall while moving at speeds of 5 miles per hour or more. Necks can still be broken, and brains can still bleed from the motion of the brain inside the skull. howeever, some major risks are reduced. everyone enjoys looking good while skiing, but avoiding head injuries outweigh everything.
I grew up in a time where we raced on ice sans helmet, we also didn't wear seatbelts in cars. those of us who lived through this without losing our frontal lobes and wearing diapers, should count our blessings!

Posted by: tonibark | March 19, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

National statistics do demonstrate the skiing is a relatively safe recreational activity, but for the hundreds of participants each year who are injured by an inattentive lift operator or walloped by a fellow skier, the consequences can often be life-changing if not fatal. Even the National Ski Areas Association strongly recommends helmets for all participants. Colorado, with its world-class skiing opportunities, has its share of serious ski accidents. The Colorado Bar Association, as part of its “Law School for Journalists,” offered a program February 19, 2009 on the “Colorado Ski Safety Act” with discussion of the Colorado statute and ski cases – the handouts to the presentation are available at the CBA website at:, and for those more interested in the consumer safety issue rather than the legal questions, Skier and Snowboard Safety: Hot Issues for Consumers, part of the CBA discussion, is available at:

Posted by: lchalat | March 19, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Another well-known victim of ski-related head injury was journalist John McWethy of ABC News and US News & World Report. Not only should skiers wear helmets; so should anyone engaged in ANY speed related sport. I am merely a bicyclist, and I always wear a helmet when riding. Support also should be given to states (even the federal government) considering legislation for mandatory helmet laws, especially for motorcyclists who often need to be protected from their own stupidity.

Posted by: TESimonton | March 19, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

I started wearing one after living in Colorado and skiing regularly every weekend, and think skiers/boarders should wear one. We just had too many near-misses with out-of-control skiers/boarders. After I learned to snowboard, and realized the huge blind spot boarders can have as they turn, I was even more grateful for my helmet. While I think skiing is relatively safe, I've seen bad accidents happen on easy blues and greens. Skiers need to remember helmets can help, but a bad crash, or one where you hit your head or back in just the right way, really can be life-threatening. It's just as important to ski within your ability and be aware of what's going on around you.

Posted by: sjneal | March 19, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Ski helmets are actually fashionable as well as protective, and mine keeps my head warmer than my ski hat ever did. About four years ago I took a spill that banged my head against hardpacked snow. Altho I realized I'd taken quite a shock, I waited until last year to purchase a helmet. We're not so smart as we think we are.

Posted by: jnick44 | March 19, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

I was hit hard from behind, hit the ground hard, wearing a helmet. I had a concussion with the helmet on, and broken collarbone- am sure without the helmet I would have been in extremely bad shape.

Posted by: sophie8 | March 19, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

I haven't been skiing in a while, but would wear a helmet if I did. Which is more a testament to my own horrible klutziness then anything else...

Posted by: Catwhowalked | March 19, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

beginner skiers, yes. experienced skiers, up to the individual.

sport always has inherent risk. i for one, do not want someone dictating to me, how much risk i will take. takes all the fun right out of it.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | March 19, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

I was speaking only for myself - I agree that if you are an adult, it is your decision.

Posted by: Catwhowalked | March 19, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

As as avid skier, I truly believe everyone should wear a helmit. Experienced or beginner skiers alike, it's not about your level, it's about the skiers around you. Why else do you wear a seatbelt - to protect yourself from idiot drivers. I think parents in particular need to wear helmits so they can role model for their children. Although I do stress wearing a helmit, this does not mean you have a free pass for skiing out of control. I agree with the comment, wear a helmit, pretend that you're not wearing one.

Posted by: aves | March 19, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if a ski helmet would have helped Natasha Richardson, though. If, as reported, she fell during a lesson in soft snow on a beginner slope (no collision), I find it rather more likely that the fall itself was the result of an initial minor stroke that was followed quickly by the fatal hematoma. Millions of people fall on the slopes without helmets, and serious head injuries are generally associated only with collisions. Helmets may be proper gear for all skiers, but I hesitate to use the Neeson family's tragedy as the context for this discussion.

Posted by: chirashi1 | March 19, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

I've been a skier for almost 30 years. I call myself a "dark blue" skier - I like challenging, intermediate runs. I don't allow myself to get out of control because of an accident I had on the slopes as a teen - knocked myself out and ended up with concussion, broke my skis, shamed myself severely (that's what mattered most at the time). I've been wearing a helmet when I ski for about 10 years and would never go back to a hat, because my helmet's warmer, but primarily for the same reason I wear a helmet when I bike: just in case. My young kids ski as well now and will not be allowed to go without a helmet as long as I have a say in it.

Chirashir1, I actually think that if we can find some tiny benefit in Natasha Richardson's death, it may be getting the word out about helmets. We have yet to learn whether a stroke preceded the fall, but according to my friend's physician husband, it is entirely possible the fall alone killed her and that a helmet would have prevented her death. In his words, if you fall just the right way (or maybe the wrong way) on any hard surface, you'll be brain dead without or even with immediate intervention.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | March 19, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

You should ALWAYS wear a helmet! You might trip and fall while walking. Or slip in the shower!

Posted by: UnixWizard | March 19, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I have been skiing for 18 years, and have been a safety professional for 31 years. I didn't use to wear a helmet, because I didn't ski that extreme or fast. Then I hit a patch of ice, and hit my head on the ground before I knew what happened. Since then, I have always worn a helmet, and most of the skiiers and snowboarders in my ski club now wear helmets. Just like the tragedy with Chris Reeves resulted in more people wearing a helmet while riding horses, I hope the silver lining to the tragic death of Natasha will result in more people wearing helmets, even at the beginner level.

Posted by: SafetyRonny | March 19, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

Don't let congress pass legislation mandating helmets or else we'll be funding helment police. Just wear a helmet.

Posted by: whocares666 | March 19, 2009 6:25 PM | Report abuse

If anything it should be optional - NOT required.

Posted by: audrey_cvngh | March 19, 2009 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Probably it would have.

Fred Smilek is the acting president of the Society to Save Endangered Species. It was founded two years ago by Fred Smilek along with his two best friends Charles and Jonathan.

Posted by: fredsmilek | March 19, 2009 7:30 PM | Report abuse

What I don't understand is, you're REQUIRED to wear a helmet on a REGULAR bike BUT NOT ON A MOTORCYCLE or skateboard in which you CAN get fatally injured. Conflicting policies do not make sense!

Helmets should be REQUIRED just as much as seatbelts in a car! SAFETY SHOULD BE THE PRIORITY!

Posted by: CALSGR8 | March 19, 2009 8:11 PM | Report abuse

In response to a comment by tonibark, who says:

"As a physician and ex-ski instructor, I recommend that everyone wear a helmet while engaged in any sport where one can fall onto a hard surface, or can fall while moving at speeds of 5 miles per hour or more."

So you recommend marathon runners wear a helmet? Ridiculous.

Posted by: spacemoose | March 20, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Exactly 2 years ago we lost our 14 year old son in this exact type of skiing accident. Our son was an experienced, recreational skier with a love for all sports. Skiing with family and friends, on an intermediate slope, he fell forward onto only snow. After putting his skis back on and skiing about 40 yards he collapsed. He was air-lifted to the nearest hospital but never regained consciousness.
Now let me begin by saying I believe EVERYONE should wear a helmet while skiing or any high impact sport. Having said that this would not have saved my son's life. The doctors concluded that with the type and force of blunt impact he had it would not have stopped his epidural hematoma. After 2 years of research on what we could have done to prevent this, not many answers have come our way. This we do know..
1. Head injuries happen more often in a
bathtub than on a ski slope.
2. Over half of all ski fatalities last year happened to those wearing helmets.
3. Helmet use has risen but ski related deaths have stayed the same.
4. Helmet use has been proven to help with concusions and minor head injuries.
5. The chance of death in a ski accident are 1 out of a million.
However knowing all of this does not help in coping with the loss of our child or anyone's loved one. We cope by understanding that there is a plan for each one each one of us, and that life is but a vapor compared to eternity.
Our son was an outging, loving, and compassionate individual that had a zest for living unlike anyone I have ever known. One hour prior to his death he called me, his sister, and his 2 main heros, his father and grandfather. He just wanted to check in and say "I Love You." And, he never ended a conversation without those words, which is something he taught me.
Our son's life, just as Ms. Richardson's, had great purpose and this continues to live on through his passing. A foundation was set up in his name which has distributed more than $100,000 to youth sports and recreation in our city. We have been blessed by a community that surrounded this tragedy and turned it into something that gives back to make others lives just a little bit better.
We are committed to moving forward and living the life our son would have insisted on: one day at a time and in a positive way. Our heart aches for anyone that has to travel this road and our sympathies go out to this entire family. Although life will never be the same, it has been enriched and blessed by having this child forever in our lives. God's Blessings to this entire family

Posted by: windy7 | March 20, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

No mandatory adult ski helmets. No true science supports any allegations of safety, so leave it up to skiers. See for data supporting this no mandatory helmets view.

Young children and novices should always use them. Most teens probably should, but there is no science to support this, thus choice guided by parental oversight is best.

Sadly, NO helmet will protect you from TBI all the time, even in minor falls. Helmets have NO TBI prevention effect in impacts over 25 mph; and no to negligible effect on TBI for impacts under 20 mph. Half the skiers killed in the US last year wore helmets.

Conduct and judgment determine most TBIs, NOT helmets.

Posted by: haroldburbank | March 20, 2009 9:48 PM | Report abuse

When we went skiing this past winter, I fell and hit my head. My ski instructor stayed with me and made sure I was okay. I rarely fall, am an intermediate skier at best, but this day I couldn't get my right leg to co-operate in the powdery hill that I had successfully skied dozens of times. I will wear a helmet in the future because bad stuff keeps happening to me so better to be safe than sorry. One year a snowboarder crossed over the slope and came behind me and plowed into my hip. He didn't hear me because he had his helmet on. Helmets need to have some kind of hearing aid volume control apparatus in them so they can have the sense of hearing not muffled. They also can cut down on the peripherals a bit. Not good. Helmets with mirrors? I don't know, but they need improvement. Pros and cons to everything. Life is a tradeoff.

Posted by: Lydiasings | March 24, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

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