Hard-headed Nova Scotians

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by Iain MacMillan from Spring 2012 issue


Well, we all knew it was going to happen sooner or later; we just didn’t expect Nova Scotia to lead the charge into our new, fortified world of skiing.

Back in December, Nova Scotia Minister of Health and Wellness Maureen MacDonald announced that starting next season, it will be against the law to ski or snowboard without wearing a helmet. Must have been a slow day in the legislature.

We were told that over the last 12 seasons there have been 11 traumatic head injuries on Nova Scotia’s ski slopes. (The Minister’s office didn’t offer how many of those 11 were wearing helmets.) I didn’t do well in second-year statistics, but in my uneducated opinion I’d say that given there are hundreds of thousands of skier and snowboarder visits to slopes in Nova Scotia every year, we’re even safer than I thought. I wonder what all the fuss is about— especially when I learned later the helmet compliance rate on the bonnie slopes of New Scotland is already at 77 per cent.

I’m not anti-helmet; I wear one regularly. It’s great to hold a POV and it protects cameras and other electronics when I’m travelling. It prevents itchy hat head, displays stickers and protects the back of my head when the keener at the end of the chair can’t wait to lower the bar. It looks as if it would stop scalp lacerations from low boughs when treeskiing, not that I know anyone who’s actually had a branch scrape the top of his head in the trees. On the other hand, I also can’t imagine two cm of Styrofoam would help much if my noggin, travelling at average skier speeds, was stopped by a tree trunk.

Although every once in a while this final and sad scenario happens at Canadian ski hills, thankfully it’s not as frequent as, say, elderly people wiping out in the bathroom. (And as far as I know, the Nova Scotia Assembly isn’t quite there yet at mandating bathtub helmets or toilet seat belts for everyone who collects CPP.)

Nova Scotia’s government is spinning this as a cost issue. Minister MacDonald says a traumatic brain injury costs $400,000 a year to treat. So hiring provincial helmet police to ensure we’re all in compliance will actually save taxpayers money down the road. Hmmm….

Okay, if we’re talking money and safety, consider how much has already been spent on ski and snowboard helmets—and the resulting dramatic drop in head injury rates. Let’s say on average we’re spending, oh, $100 or $150 on a helmet. If there have been 10 million sold in the last 10 or 15 years, that works out to a whopping $1-$1.5 billion. Imagine the corresponding drop in head injury rates!

Yes, imagine.

Unfortunately, a drop in head injury rates since the majority of us started wearing head protection hasn’t appeared to have happened. But no one knows because the little data that are collected are too vague and they’re easily superseded by the rare, traumatic onslope death. Unfortunately, this all degrades into yet another fervent, anecdotal discussion about one’s buddy, sibling, grandmother… But anecdotes shouldn’t replace actual numbers for head injuries.

Nevertheless, one does have to wonder whether our ski slopes would be safer if $1.5 billion had been spent on something else. Say, education to slow skiers down (me included) on our billiard-table-smooth groomed slopes that didn’t exist when most of us were growing up skiing in a helmetless world.

Twenty-or-so years ago, the New York State Legislature passed a law (followed more recently by Vermont) that requires chairlift riders to head into the clouds with the “safety” bar down. Riding with it up looked dangerous, therefore it was. But in New York and around the world, children still regularly fall off chairlifts, almost exclusively before the first lift tower or just before the last, i.e. when the “safety” bar is being lowered or raised. Chairlifts are designed for adults; little and light bodies don’t have the same leverage you and I do. It’s an inherent design flaw—sort of like two cm of plastic-covered Styrofoam, a tree and 60 or 80 kph of speed. ❄

Ski helmets policy statement from Canada West Ski Areas Association

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