Health experts say it came as little surprise that Michael Schumacher was wearing a helmet when he sustained a life-threatening head injury while skiing in France last week. Studies have shown more skiers and snowboarders are wearing helmets, but the trend has not reduced snow-sports-related brain injuries.
Although three times as many skiers and snowboarders in the United States are wearing helmets as a decade ago — 70 percent of all participants — the National Ski Areas Association says the number of fatalities and concussions in the country has remained roughly the same, The New York Times reports.
Schumacher, a successful Formula One driver, sustained a traumatic brain injury when he fell and hit his head on a rock while navigating an off-trail area at a resort in Méribel, France. Despite wearing a helmet, he is fighting for his life in a hospital in Grenoble, France.
Schumacher's injury has spotlighted the inability of helmets to prevent serious head injuries and that more skiers and snowboarders are engaging in risky behaviors, such as venturing into ungroomed areas.
"The equipment we have now allows us to do things we really couldn't do before, and people's pushing limits has sort of surpassed people's ability to control themselves," Chris Davenport, a professional big-mountain skier, told The Times.
Dave Byrd, the ski association’s director of risk management, said helmet use has increased, in part, as a result of growing public awareness about brain injuries, particularly in the N.F.L., and several high-profile skiing deaths, like those of Sonny Bono and Natasha Richardson.
Experts say helmets have reduced the numbers of less serious head injuries, like scalp lacerations, by 30 percent to 50 percent, and Schumacher may not have survived his fall had he not worn a helmet. But they do not prevent some more serious injuries, like the tearing of delicate brain tissue, said Jasper Shealy, a professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology. In fact, some studies indicate that the number of snow-sports-related head injuries has increased.
"There's a push toward faster, higher, pushing the limits being the norm, not the exception," Nina Winans, a sports medicine physician at Tahoe Forest MultiSpecialty Clinics in Truckee, Calif., told The Times. "So, all of those factors — terrain parks, jumping cliffs, and opening terrain that maybe wasn’t open in the past — play into some of these statistics with injuries."