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Coroner stirs debate on mandatory helmet use at ski hills

B.C. ski resorts, including Whistler Blackcomb, oppose legislating helmet use



A coroner has called on the province to consider making snow-sport helmets mandatory at all B.C. ski hills following the conclusion of an investigation into the 2013 death of a teenaged snowboarder on Grouse Mountain.

"The research reviewed during the course of this investigation indicates helmets can reduce the risk of serious injury in certain scenarios," Coroner Timothy Wiles wrote in his report. "However, there are currently no regulations mandating helmet use in the Province of British Columbia."

Whistler Blackcomb declined to be interviewed, but sent a statement from safety manager Kira Cailes.

"Whistler Blackcomb recommends the use of helmets to all guests. As for making helmet usage mandatory at B.C. ski resorts through legislation, we believe that encouraging safe skiing and boarding practices through education, awareness and example is a more effective approach to limiting head injuries.

"In recent years, Whistler Blackcomb has noticed helmet usage becoming increasingly common with most of our guests choosing to wear helmets without any legislation in place."

The coroner's recommendations flow from an investigation into the death of 16-year-old exchange student Luca Cesar, who was snowboarding at the North Vancouver resort on Nov. 29, 2013 when he became separated from his friends.

A search located the teen hours later in cardio-pulmonary arrest in a rocky area below the Heaven's Sake run. He was pronounced dead shortly after, having succumbed to severe injuries caused by blunt force head trauma. He was not wearing a helmet at the time.

Several factors may have contributed to Cesar's death, Wiles found, including "speed, weather conditions, and rider inexperience." Whether a helmet would have prevented the Brazilian teen's death, however, was a question he could not answer.

"Though it remains unclear if the use of a helmet may have prevented life-threatening traumatic brain injury in Luca's case, it is clear that traumatic brain injuries continue to pose a significant risk to skiers and snowboarders," Wiles wrote in his report.

A BC Corners Service summary of winter activity deaths in the province between 2007 and 2013 found that head injuries accounted for 26 per cent of all ski-related deaths, and 20 per cent of all snowboard-related deaths. Skiing and snowboarding made up 27 per cent of the 136 fatalities reported over that time.

In his report, Wiles also highlighted the lack of a "consistent" national message on helmet use at ski resorts.

"Few mountains have taken an aggressive approach regarding mandating the use of a helmet or other protective equipment for all guests," wrote Wiles, although he noted there appears to be consistent messaging across Canada encouraging underage skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets. Over 99 per cent of Canadian children 14 and under wear helmets when riding, according to the Canadian Ski Council (CSC).

B.C. ski resorts largely don't support legislating helmet use in the province, instead favouring an educational approach.

"We've come to the conclusion that there's no reasonable scientific or ethical basis to force people to wear helmets, especially when we've demonstrated that education works better than legislation," said David Lynn, president of the Canada West Ski Areas Association. And statistics from the CSC have supported that notion, with snow sport helmet usage in B.C. increasing from 32 per cent in 2003 to 86 per cent in 2015.

Everyone under 18 participating in snow school lessons, along with all instructors, must wear helmets on Whistler Blackcomb. With helmet use on the rise, researchers remain divided on just how much they actually reduce the risk of death on the mountain.

In a 2012 report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Dr. Natalie Yanchar, associate professor of surgery and emergency medicine at Dalhousie University, said it was "without question" that helmets lower the risk of serious head injuries in the case of a crash.

The same year, Nova Scotia became one of the first jurisdictions in North America to enact legislation making helmet use mandatory at ski hills, a move that was criticized by some as an overstep by the province's NDP government.

The Canadian Pediatric Society joined the chorus when it updated its official position on helmet use for snow sports three years ago, also calling for mandatory usage.

However, Dr. Jasper Shealy of the Rochester Institute of Technology, perhaps the world's preeminent researcher on snow-sport helmets, has previously stated that there lacks any "clear evidence" that helmets are effective in reducing alpine sport fatalities.

A 2013 study he conducted with the aim of assessing the capabilities and limitations of various helmet models found that, while helmets can "dramatically reduce" the likelihood of severe injury on impact with icy snow, they've shown to have no effect upon impact with an object at 30 km/hr.

Another part of the safety equation revolves around the fact that not all helmets are created equal, and there exists no legislated standard for snow sport helmets in Canada — something long-time mountain safety advocate and Brain Injury Association of Canada committee chair Richard Kinar hopes to change.

"The helmets people are buying to put on their head are sometimes just a piece of junk that are no more protective (than a) hat," said Kinar, who has lobbied all three levels of government to adopt the rigorous Canadian Standards Association (CSA) standard on helmets, as is the case with all hockey helmets in the country. (Kinar is also a product rep for CSA.)

"The ski industry's been lobbying against standards for sport helmets, (it) continues to do so and (it has) bowed to industry pressure," he added.

It's not that resorts are against an industry standard, Lynn said, pointing to the Canada West Ski Areas Association's recommendation that all helmets rented or sold at ski resorts meet at least one of the three accepted international standards.

"(But) does it make sense to create a new separate standard within Canada?" he asked. "What would that do to the cost and availability of helmets within Canada?

"We're not against the CSA standard, but what's the compelling reason that the CSA standard would replace all of these international standards?"

Kinar has also pushed for the creation of an independent third party that would investigate all serious injuries or deaths at ski resorts that would determine, among other things, if weather conditions prior to an accident warranted the mountain being open.

"This third-party agency... needs to be able to collect information from the site so that we can truly come up with meaningful recommendations," said Kinar, who questioned whether Grouse Mountain should have opened on the evening of Cesar's death with rainy, foggy conditions reducing visibility to under 100 metres, according to the coroner's report.

"As we go into these seasons of climate change... the marketing departments (at ski resorts) are making decisions on when the hill will be open as opposed to being opened from a safety perspective. There's two forces at play."


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