The death of Tony-award-winning actress Natasha Richardson has galvanized advocates who say national safety standards are needed for ski and snowboard helmets sold in Canada.
Ms. Richardson's death on Wednesday, a day after her skiing accident at Mount Tremblant in Quebec, is the latest incident on a Canadian ski hill to raise questions about whether prevention may have been possible if the victim had been wearing a helmet.
But some safety experts say there's no guarantee a helmet would have been effective, since helmet quality is not regulated in Canada.
"If a helmet is sold in Canada, it doesn't have to meet any standards whatsoever," said Richard Kinar, a board member with the Brain Injury Association of Canada.
Unlike hockey helmets, recreational snow-sport helmets do not need to be tested for safety or quality to be manufactured or sold in Canada.
Even if a helmet has a sticker indicating it has been certified elsewhere, including the United States or according to an international standard, Canadian consumers have no way of knowing whether those helmets have been tested by an agency other than the manufacturer, said Anthony Toderian, spokesman for the Canadian Standards Association.
Now, a number of politicians and sports-injury experts are lobbying to make testing mandatory.
Last month, federal MP Hedy Fry reintroduced a private member's bill that would include recreational snow-sport helmets under the Hazardous Products Act, meaning that, like hockey helmets, they would need to be tested by the CSA.
"The recent serious brain injuries on Canada's ski slopes are tragic reminders that these brain injuries are preventable," Dr. Fry said yesterday in a news release. "The Canadian Standard Association has developed a new standard for recreational alpine-snow-sport helmets, but Canadians will never get the benefit from it unless the Conservative government takes urgent action."
The piece of legislation proposed by Dr. Fry would ban the advertising, sale or import into Canada of alpine helmets that do not meet the national standards finalized by the CSA last year. The standards are based on consultations with doctors, safety experts and ski-industry stakeholders.
Yet the CSA has not used those standards to test a single alpine helmet sold in Canada, since the testing is not federally mandated, said Mr. Toderian.
Spurred on by the growing outcry over lack of regulation around helmets, the CSA plans to announce a new certification program, which may allow Canadians to have their helmets tested.
The new guidelines are more strict than the U.S. and international guidelines that already exist, said Patrick Bishop, professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, who has done extensive research into safety aspects of hockey helmets and was part of the team consulted regarding the new standards.
"We believe that it will help, and we believe that it's the best standard for ski helmets available," Dr. Bishop said. The standards include requirements that make the helmets stand up against multiple impacts to the same area, and crashes at certain velocities.
They have the support of high-profile researchers including Charles Tator, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto and co-founder of Think First, a non-profit organization that encourages safe sporting practices. "We do that with hockey helmets and I think that it has worked well," he said.
He emphasized, however, that any helmet is better than no helmet at all.
"There is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet," he added, "but they do protect against the major brain injury."
Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner's office said actress Natasha Richardson died of bleeding in the skull following a blunt impact to the head.
"That's what helmets are supposed to protect against, or at least reduce the risk of," Dr. Bishop said.
Follow us on Twitter: