The tragic death on Wednesday of actress Natasha Richardson, following what at first appeared to be a minor fall while skiing, has sparked a debate on whether it should be mandatory for skiers and snowboarders to wear safety helmets.

According to a BBC report, there has been a sharp increase in the number of skiers and snowboarders wearing helmets after several high profile skiing accidents this year.

In some resorts the wearing of safety helmets is already compulsory. For example in Lower Austria all children under 14 must now wear a safety helmet, following the death of a female skier who collided at high speed with the German politician Dieter Althaus in January. Althaus who was wearing a helmet survived and has since been found guilty of manslaughter.

In Italy it is already compulsory for children to wear a helmet.

Sales of helmets have gone up in Austria and Germany since January, and in the UK, ski equipment retailers Snow and Rock told the BBC that they have seen a 15 per cent increase in sales of helmets this winter.

Richardson’s death has sparked debate in the US and Canada too.

Patrick O’Sullivan is Ski Patrol director of Arapahoe Basin ski area in Colorado; he told CNN that:

“Wearing a helmet is a personal decision that I chose quite a while ago.”

O’Sullivan said he’d been skiing for about 25 years and he now wears a helmet “pretty much every day”.

The reason O’Sullivan started wearing a helmet was because he was given one for free by a neurosurgeon who wanted to raise awareness about the dangers of skiing without head protection.

Dr. A Stewart Levy, who is chief of neurosurgery and neurotrauma at St Anthony Central Hospital in Denver, Colorado, started giving away safety helmets for free in 1997. Since then he has given away over 1,000 helmets.

Levy told CNN that he has researched safety helmets and presented, although not published, a study that looked at cases between 1998 and 2005 and found helmets reduced the risk of brain injury by 75 per cent. He said there have been other studies that showed helmets reduced brain injuries by between 50 and 80 per cent.

However, some critics might be concerned that making helmets compulsory could be counterproductive. It might make people think they are invincible and can be more reckless and take more risks, thus wiping out any benefit from wearing a helmet. Currently severe head injuries from skiing without a helmet are very rare, and perhaps this is because people on the whole are wary of how vulnerable they are without one and don’t take risks.

Part of the problem at the centre of the debate is the lack of any sound medical evidence about the risks and what influences them.

Levy said wearing a helmet was only part of the solution, you also have to educate skiers to ski responsibly:

“A helmet is not a license to ski recklessly,” he told CNN.

However, it looks like the number of people wearing helmets is set to continue rising. According to a 2008 survey by the National Ski Areas Association, 43 per cent of skiers and snowboarders in the US wear helmets; in 2003 the figure was 25 per cent.

According to the BBC, the Sports Minister for Quebec, where Richardson suffered her fatal accident, announced earlier this season that the province was set to decide whether to bring in compulsory wearing of ski helmets next winter.

45 year old Richardson, was a Tony award winning actress of film and stage, wife of actor Liam Neeson and mother to their two teenage sons. She fell on Monday while skiing on a beginner’s slope at a Quebec resort about 80 miles northwest of Montreal.

She died in a New York hospital on Wednesday, surrounded by her family, including her husband, her mother Vanessa Redgrave, and her sister Joely Richardson, said the Daily Telegraph.

Her family released a statement describing their shock and devastation and expressing gratitude for the prayers, love and support they have received, and asking for “privacy during this very difficult time”.

A CNN news report said that Richardson was skiing at Mont Tremblant Ski Resort. The management of the Resort released a statement saying that she fell during a beginner’s lesson. She didn’t show signs of injury, but following the Resort’s procedures she was accompanied back to the bottom of the slope and persuaded to see a doctor.

She went back to her hotel with her ski instructor and felt ill an hour later and was taken by ambulance to a local hospital and later transferred to a hospital in Montreal. From there she was flown to a hospital in New York City, where she died.

Sources: CNN, BBC, Telegraph.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD