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Opinion: Is Skiing a safe sport?

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Questions surrounding sports safety have once again arisen following the tragic death of French Olympic skier David Poisson last week. 

Poisson, 35, had been training in Nakiska, Canada ahead of World Cup events at Lake Louise on 25-26 November. It is reported that he lost a ski and fell through safety nets before hitting a tree at high speeds.

Poisson is the first alpine World Cup skier to be killed whilst training or racing since France's Regine Cavagnoud died in 2001, two days after she received severe brain injuries following a high-speed collision with a skiing-coach in training.

Competitive skiing is no stranger to welfare concerns. With speeds of up to 150KM/H common, the racing community is well aware of the inherent risks of downhill skiing.

After the death of Austrian skier, Ulrike Maier in 1994, which was broadcast live on television, safety netting and padding now enclose most courses and many high-speed areas have been engineered and redesigned to decelerate athletes.

The most common causes of fatalities in skiing are from injuries to the head and neck. Amateurs, as well as professionals, are also victims of tragic accidents on the slopes. In 2013, seven-time Formula 1 World Champion Michael Schumacher was put into a medically induced coma after his head hit a rock whilst he was traversing off-piste. Most agree that Schumacher would likely have died if he had not been wearing a helmet at the time.

Helmets are mandatory in competitions but on normal slopes, if you’re over the age of 18, currently the only place in the world where you have a legal obligation to wear a helmet whilst skiing or snowboarding is Nova Scotia, Canada.

Actress Natasha Richardson died in 2009 when she fell on a beginners’ slope at the Mont Tremblant resort in Quebec. Richardson had not been wearing a helmet and although she initially showed no sign of injury an hour later she was taken to a nearby hospital after feeling unwell. It was later confirmed her head injury was critical after internal bleeding in her skull caused a blood clot putting pressure on her brain.

Whether the star of The Parent Trap and The Handmaid's Tale would have survived if she had worn a helmet is still up for debate. According to the National Ski Areas Association, following an increase in helmet usage, surface injuries like facial lacerations and skull fractures have reduced by up to 50%. In a lot of cases, helmets significantly reduce the severity of the injury.

In truth, the likelihood of a severe injury whilst skiing is still a significantly low figure. With an average of 34 deaths a year, or 0.69 fatalities per million on the slopes, skiing and snowboarding is a “very safe sport” according to Dupont Emergency Response Solutions. In 2009 there were 3.0 skiing injuries per 1000. To put that in perspective there were 5.2 injuries for boxing per 1000, 3.8 for American football and 2.4 for soccer.

The likelihood of a minor injury whilst skiing is no different to less extreme team sports. The difference is major injuries which, although rare, are more likely to be fatal. Safety nets, cushions and improved skiing equipment do reduce these risks but are not guaranteed to be 100% effective.

The most important thing to remember whilst on the slopes is to ski safely, whether or not you are wearing a helmet. Always ski within your ability and make sure you are aware of what’s happening around you. The best thing you can do is try to avoid situations where you could end up getting in an accident.

Image - MaxPixel. Wikipedia Commons. Data obtained from The Guardian (Chalabi, 2013)

Image above shows French skier David Poisson, who died in a skiing accident on 13th November 2017. 

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