Quebec ski accident involving British actress sparks helmet law debate

The fatal injuries sustained by British actress Natasha Richardson after a spill at a Quebec ski resort have renewed debate over the idea of making helmets mandatory for snowboarders and downhill skiers.

The fatal injuries sustained by British actress Natasha Richardson after a spill at a Quebec ski resort have renewed debate over the idea of making helmets mandatory for snowboarders and downhill skiers.

The question emerges every year in Canada — usually after an accident claims the life of a winter reveller.

Richardson, an award-winning stage and screen actress, was reportedly not wearing a helmet when she took to the slopes at the posh Mont Tremblant resort in the Laurentians on Monday. 

The wife of actor Liam Neeson was getting a private lesson on a beginner trail when she fell. Resort officials say she seemed fine immediately afterwards and even refused to see a doctor, but that she began complaining of a headache about an hour later and was rushed to hospital.

The 45-year-old actress died in New York on Wednesday, but the family's statement did not give details on the cause of death.

"It's obviously devastating for those involved, but the unfortunate part is that that same tragedy is echoed across Canada each year, so there are many, many families suffering exactly the same thing," Richard Kinar of the Brain Injury Association of Canada said in an interview Wednesday.

"We've got a real health crisis and a high-profile event like this really, you know, brings home to the public ... just how big is the problem about concussions and head injuries in sport."

The Canadian Institute for Health Information's latest figures, which do not include those from Quebec, indicate 138 people were hospitalized across Canada in 2005-2006 because of a head injury sustained while skiing or snowboarding.

Between 1990 and 2008, at least 39 people died on Quebec's ski hills, according to the provincial coroner's office.

A report released last year suggested that of the 26 deaths between 1990 and 2004, 14 were the result of head injuries. Helmets were worn in just two of those 14 cases.

"We essentially would like to see everybody wearing helmets," said Valerie Powell of the Canada Safety Council.

"By no means will a helmet save you 100 per cent, but it's definitely a step in the right direction to try to prevent brain damage or something like that."

Emergency room doctors called on Quebec last month to make helmets mandatory.

Quebec Sport and Leisure Minister Michelle Courchesne said she would consider the idea in time for next year's ski season.

No standards for ski, snowboard helmets

The debate also surfaced in Ontario last month after a 13-year-old South Korean exchange student who wasn't wearing a helmet hit a tree and died.

Despite calls to make helmets compulsory for children, Premier Dalton McGuinty said it's up to parents to keep their kids safe.

But Kinar, a Vancouver resident and one-time freestyle skier who's been advocating in favour of helmet legislation for years, said provincial laws are secondary to what the federal government needs to do.

Ski and snowboard helmet manufacturers don't currently need to meet any specific standards, Kinar said, adding Ottawa has thus far refused to move forward with a private member's bill that would require all snow sport helmets sold in Canada to meet guidelines set by the Canadian Standards Association.

"Some of the things that they're putting on their head offer no more protection than probably a baseball helmet," he said, adding he hopes it changes before the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.

Ski operators opposed

Anthony Toderian of the Canadian Standards Association added that even though there's no federal requirement that standards be met, a set of standards was developed last year.

Another impediment to setting standards for snow helmets has been the fact there's been no certification or testing programs available, he said, hinting that could change.

He said the CSA is expected to make an announcement next week on the subject.

Right now, ski operators are among the most vocal opponents to mandated helmet use.

Alexis Boyer of the Quebec Ski Areas Association said 90 per cent of youngsters under 12 already use helmets and Quebec ski hills have been a leader in mandating their use in snow parks.

While he supports their use, he doesn't support it becoming law as that would put operators in the position of having to police their guests, many of whom come from outside the province and country, and may not be aware of the requirements.

Legislating helmet use would also increase costs for operators who would have to provide a helmet rental service.

Cleaning and disinfecting them and making sure they are in good working order would present additional challenges, he said.


  • An earlier version of this story, from the Canadian Press, stated that Anthony Toderian speaks for the Canada Safety Council. In fact, he is a spokesman for the Canadian Standards Association.
    Mar 19, 2009 2:30 PM ET