x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Skiing is loads of fun, but is it safe?

Michael Schumacher was lucky to survive his skiing accident, with experts saying he would have died had he not been wearing a helmet. The incident raises questions about the sport’s safety, not least of which is whether helmet-wearing should be mandatory.

Slippery slopes: the view of the rock-strewn area, top, where Michael Schumaker is believed to have fallen, between the pistes Chamois. David Ebener / EPA
Slippery slopes: the view of the rock-strewn area, top, where Michael Schumaker is believed to have fallen, between the pistes Chamois. David Ebener / EPA

It’s a popular time for skiing holidays – but Formula One champ Michael Schumacher’s tragic accident has highlighted the dangers of the sport.

Experienced skiers and novices should be aware of their safety on the slopes and what precautions they need to take to avoid injury.

Schumacher, who turns 45 on Friday, remains in an artificial coma after he hit a rock while skiing in the French resort of Meribel on Sunday. Contrary to initial speculation, he was not skiing quickly at the time.

The accident has prompted debates about skier safety and, in particular, the effectiveness of helmets – without a helmet, the former racing driver would not have made it to the hospital alive.

Once again, skiing has come under scrutiny. People are asking, are the slopes safe?

The short answer is, yes.

At Ski Dubai, there are no jutting stones or trees precariously close to the piste. The biggest risk of a collision comes from overconfident beginners who whizz haphazardly down the slope.

“There are some people who say ‘yes, we know how to ski’ and they don’t and the ski patrol sends them back to ski school,” says Abdu, 33, a Moroccan ski instructor at Ski Dubai.

On a natural ski hill, things are different. There could be fog and ice, trees and hidden rocks. The appeal of alpine skiing is a connection to the mountain, and mountains can be dangerous. However, that danger is often exaggerated.

There are about 200 million skiers and 70 million snowboarders worldwide. Statistically speaking, deaths and severe injury in winter sports are rare.

“Accidents of this nature are, thankfully, rare events among skiers and snowboarders, although of course they usually receive substantial media attention,” says Dr Mike Langran, a Scottish doctor and president of the International Society for Skiing Safety.

“As with any recreational activity, however, it is impossible to completely remove all elements of risk when participating in snow sports.”

Alpine, or downhill, skiing has an injury rate of about two injuries for every 1,000 ski days. Snowboarders have an injury rate of about three to five injuries for every 1,000 days on the slope.

When you compare this with the number of injuries on the football or rugby field, skiing and snowboarding do not look so bad.

Fatality rates are also relatively low, at about 0.71 deaths per million ski days and 0.46 deaths per million snowboard days.

More surprising is who is at risk of death and where. Experienced male skiers on moderate groomed runs are those at highest risk.

Deaths are rarely on the easiest or most difficult slopes, according to research by Jasper Shealy, a professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology who has tracked ski injuries and deaths for more than 30 years.

“Death is a rare event in winter sports,” according to a research article published by ASTM International and led by Dr Shealy. “The incidence of death is less than one per million visits to ski resorts in the US. As rare as they are, they are regular events in the sense that they are not random, they typically occur to a very specific subgroup of the population.

“Previous research has shown that males are more likely to die trauma deaths than are females; skiers more likely to die than snowboarders; skilled participants more likely to die than less skilled; death is rare on beginner terrain; and there is no evidence that the incidence rate of death is changing.”

The study found that fewer than one death in 10 was on a green run and only 3.5 per cent were on double black runs.

The report, published in 2006, is one of the most comprehensive analyses of on-piste trauma fatalities.

There were 854 known fatalities from trauma between January 1978 and the winter of 2004-2005.

The study found that severe head injury resulting from high speed impact with a stationary object, usually a tree, was the most common cause of death for skiers and snowboarders.

Most victims were between the ages of 18 and 43.

Skiers are at a greater risk than snowboarders, because most fatal traumas are caused by collisions with stationary objects, such as trees. Snowboarders are able to stop more quickly, do not fall as far as skiers and so have fewer collisions with fixed objects.

Males accounted for 81.4 per cent of deaths but only 59 per cent of the total population in the study.

Safer gear, such as better release bindings and ski breaks, has reduced injury risk but in recent years the injury rate has stabilised.

The report also addressed one of the most controversial aspects at ski hills – the use of helmets.

Schumacher’s accident has rekindled the debate on whether or not helmets should be mandatory. His helmet cracked from the impact and doctors have said it was the reason he was still alive.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended helmet use in a 1999 paper, after its investigation concluded that helmets might have prevented or reduced the severity of 44 per cent of head injuries. Later studies presented similar findings.

This has not been the case. More frequent helmet use has not resulted in fewer deaths. The overall injury rate has changed little in the past five years, despite the growing use of helmets.

In Dr Shealy’s study, helmet use has increased by about 5 per cent a year since the 2002-2003 season, but the death rate remained unchanged.

Helmets do reduce injuries. They provide excellent protection from less severe head injuries, such as scalp lacerations, but are less effective with severe injuries.

Most on-piste fatal trauma is caused by head impact with stationary objects at speeds of 44kph or more. Helmets in themselves probably will not make a large difference in the number of deaths because of the sheer speed of impact.

What helmets have changed is the cause of death, which is less likely to be caused by head injury.

Dr Shealy suggests that helmet wearers are more likely to take risks. They typically travel 5 per cent faster than those without.

There is a misconception that helmets make people immune to injury, when in fact helmet testing is done at much lower speeds than those experienced skiers reach on the slopes.

Helmets have become the norm in Europe and the United States, where 70per cent of people wore helmets in the 2012-2013 season.

They are less common in Lebanon, a popular ski destination for Arabian Gulf residents and citizens, but this is changing.

“Even here in Lebanon more than 50 per cent of adults wear helmets,” says Roger Akiki, 40, a coach for the Lebanese ski team and member of the Lebanese ski federation.

“It’s like any sport,” Akiki says. “You have to be well prepared. It’s like a motorcycle. Even if I am a good driver, I may have an accident one day and if I don’t have a helmet I will harm myself. Skiing is just the same.”

Ski safety experts, including Dr Shealy and Dr Langran, recommend helmet use but not mandatory legislation.

“While they can never provide complete protection in all accident situations, I have no doubt that his [Schumaker’s] use of a helmet will have substantially attenuated the injuries sustained,” Dr Langran says. “My colleagues and I in the snow sports medicine fraternity continue to recommend that all skiers and snowboarders wear an appropriately sized and designed helmet on the slopes.”

For many, it is culture that should change, not laws.

“Nobody is taking care of this subject or talking about it on the TV,” Akiki says. “If you talk about skiing in Lebanon it’s about marketing. Nobody talks about safety, how to act when you ski, what you have to do, what not to do.”

Helmet fashion will even hit the Winter Olympics this year. A New York designer, Cynthia Rowley, recently released four customised helmets for the US Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, inviting fans to tweet votes for their favourite, which she will wear at the Sochi Games.

Helmets are mandatory for children in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, the US state of New Jersey and some parts of Europe and Lebanon. They are compulsory for children at Ski Dubai.

There are no rocks at the mall ski slope but good habits should start from a young age, say instructors.

“My advice is if you’re going to the mountains a helmet is necessary,” says Abdu, who started skiing at age 6 in the Atlas mountains. “Nobody knows what will happen.”

azacharias@thenational.ae