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Patrick Richard, project manager for helmet testing and certification at CSA International, shows a ski helmet tested at the agency's lab in Montreal. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

As the ski season hits its stride across Canada, the issue of mandatory helmets on the slopes is once again gaining traction.

"The market demand is out there," says Anthony Toderian, spokesman for the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). "It's really up to the manufacturers now."

The CSA, which recommends alpine skiers and snowboarders wear helmets, says they can reduce the risk of head injury by 60 per cent.

Last March, it approved standards for ski and snowboarding helmets for the first time, but manufacturers have yet to make a helmet to those standards.

"We haven't had any submissions from manufacturers for certification," says Toderian.

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Patrick Richard, project manager for helmet testing and certification at CSA International, conducts an impact test on an alpine ski and snowboard helmet. (Courtesy: CSA) ((Courtesy CSA) )

The lack of helmets made to Canadian standards is in part explained by the fact there is no law obligating skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets, and while the ski industry encourages their use, it is loath to make them mandatory.

Hockey club officials, on the other hand, insist players wear helmets conforming to CSA standards, and many municipalities have laws that state cyclists under a certain age must wear certified helmets, Toderian points out.

"The issue is policing it on the hill," says Colin Chedore, president of the Canadian Ski Council, an industry umbrella group. "When you have over 20,000 million skier visits over a season on all ski hills in Canada, it's a little different than on a rink where you have a limited number of players.

"Ski operators are concerned about having something forced on them that is difficult to manage and [adds] another cost that will drive people away from the sport."

Nonetheless, the Canadian Ski Council encourages the use of helmets. Many alpine ski and snowboard helmets currently on the Canadian market are made to American and European standards. The CSA says its standards would offer better protection.  

Richardson death renewed debate on mandatory helmets

Chedore lost 80 per cent of his hearing in one ear when he banged his head after falling backward off a ski lift several years ago. A helmet would likely have saved his hearing, he says.

"But there is no helmet made that would save someone at over 10 to 12 km/h when they hit a tree. The tree is not going to budge," said Chedore.

The average speed on an intermediate hill is 45 km/h, Chedore said.

The helmet issue gained new urgency last ski season after British actress Natasha Richardson died of a head injury following a fall during a lesson at Quebec's Mont Tremblant ski resort. She was not wearing a helmet.

Head injuries account for up to 15 per cent of all injuries suffered by skiers and snowboarders but 87 per cent of deaths.— Safe Kids Canada

According to Safe Kids Canada, international data shows that head injuries account for up to 15 per cent of all injuries suffered by skiers and snowboarders but 87 per cent of deaths. The group launched a campaign last fall encouraging people to wear helmets when they ski and snowboard.

Canadian researchers found that helmet reduces the risk of head injuries among skiers and snowboarders by 35 per cent. The researchers reviewed 12 studies and their findings were published in  the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

U.S. statistics show that nearly 50 per cent of skiers and snowboarders voluntarily donned helmets last season, up from 25 per cent six years earlier.

A Canadian Ski Council survey of 8,000 nine and 10-year-old skiers and snowboarders across the country last season showed 95 per cent wore helmets. Its survey of 35,000 adult skiers and snowboarders last season revealed just over half wore helmets.

It helps that many ski resorts insist staff wear helmets in order to set an example, said Chedore.

In October 2009, Vancouver-based Intrawest announced that it will recommend all skiers and snowboarders wear helmets at its North American resorts. The facilities affected include Quebec's Mont Tremblant, where Richardson was injured, and B.C.'s Whistler-Blackcomb, which will host alpine events during the Olympics.

The headgear is mandatory for children and teens enrolled in ski and snowboard programs and for any student, regardless of age, taking part in freestyle terrain park programs. By the 2010-2011 season, helmets will also be mandatory in the company's freestyle terrain parks for skiers, snowboarders and Intrawest employees working in those parks.