The death of actor Natasha Richardson after a fall on Quebec slopes last month put the issue of snow sport helmets back into the media spotlight, even as safety advocates won major commitments behind the scenes to establish national helmet standards as well as education programs for the public.
Last week the Canadian Standards Association, which has already developed a national standard for snow sport helmets, announced plans to start testing all helmets made or sold in Canada - pending approval by the Standards Council of Canada. That approval could come before the summer.
It would be a voluntary standard for helmet manufacturers, similar to the arrangement for bike helmets. But helmets that make the grade would have a CSA label that consumers will be advised to look for when purchasing helmets.
However, Canadian helmet manufacturers have said they would not use the standard if it is voluntary. They raised objections based on cost and design parameters. For example, CSA-approved helmets would be able to withstand multiple impacts, and as a result would be heavier - many helmets on the market use light foam and are single impact, similar to bike helmets, and need to be replaced after impact. The specs also call for harder plastic shells capable of withstanding cold weather, and some changes to the way helmets are designed and fit.
It may not be a voluntary standard for long. Health Canada said this week that it would consult with stakeholders on a proposal by Liberal Member of Parliament Hedy Fry that would include snow sports helmets under the Hazardous Products Act, similar to hockey helmets. No retailers would then be allowed to sell helmets that did not meet the CSA standard.
Dr. Fry, who has attempted to get her Private Member's Bill into the House of Commons for several years, recently wrote Prime Minister Stephen Harper to request that her bill be fast-tracked through Parliament through an Order in Cabinet.
"The recent serious brain injuries on Canada's ski slopes are tragic reminders that these brain injuries are preventable," said Fry. "A simple stroke of the pen by the Harper cabinet is all that it takes. The inexplicable failure to do so is nothing short of irresponsible."
Fry has the support of the Canadian Medical Association, the Brain Injury Association of Canada, the Insurance Bureau of Canada, ThinkFirst, and all three opposition parties. As well, Conservative MP John Weston of the West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky riding has supported the bill in principle.
With a standard in place, helmet advocates are looking at ways to get more people wearing them. Most resorts and industry groups, like the Canada West Ski Areas Association, have made helmet use mandatory for children in ski school and recommend helmets to all their customers - but believe it should be a choice for adults, including their employees.
However, WorkSafe B.C. is looking at making helmets mandatory for people that ski or snowboard as a requirement of their occupation.
Quebec is currently considering a law that would make helmets mandatory for everyone, regardless of age or whether they are employed by the industry. Resorts are wary of a law, which they believe might deter some people from skiing and snowboarding.
For Richard Kinar, the helmet advocate who has been leading the battle for standards for seven years, it was a partial victory.
"The certification program the CSA has come up with is absolutely essential, and it's a key component towards eventually having CSA standards for all sports helmets solid in Canada," said Kinar. "But what's missing here is a commitment from the Conservative government... implementing or imposing a new standard on the industry."
Kinar says the reluctance is cultural, as the Conservatives would be hesitant to use the power of government to dictate what products companies are allowed to manufacture. As a result Kinar has pledged to continue his campaign.
On April 14, he also plans to make helmets an issue in the provincial election in order to secure backing from candidates for a B.C. injury prevention strategy for youth. Eventually Kinar would like to see a national strategy, citing government figures that preventable injuries cost Canadians $14.7 billion each year. Head and spinal injures are currently the leading killer and disabler of youth in Canada.
The April 14 meeting will be held in response to Natasha Richardson's death, with presentations from the Alzheimer's Society of Canada, the Brain Injury Association of Canada, Safe Communities, and others. Kinar says media interest is high, and he's booked in 70 to 80 interviews across Canada around that time.