Winter doesn’t have to be all cold hands and aggravation. It can be an enjoyable time of year if you choose to get out and engage in any number of outdoor activities. But never forget the basic rules of common sense. Wear helmets when skiing and snowmobiling and consider them when skating or tobogganing as well. You can be sure the athletes taking part in the winter Olympics at Sochi will all be sporting them – and those being worn by two Canadian skiers will have a particularly special meaning. Brad Spence’s helmet was designed by Gillian O’Blenes, a 17-year-old cancer patient, while Roz Groenewoud hopes to embroider a sticker with the name “Sarah” insider her helmet, honouring her friend Sarah Burke, a freestyle skier and four-time X Games champion who died in a skiing accident in January 2012.
As recently as 30 years ago, it was uncommon to see someone skiing, snowboarding or skating wearing a helmet. “Overly cautious’ might have been the reaction. But with the ever- growing awareness of concussions and the potential for brain injuries, helmets have almost become the norm – and rightly so.
Skiing and snowboarding
On Dec. 29, 2013, racing car driver extraordinaire Michael Schumacher made headlines when he sustained a head injury while skiing in the French Alps. A month later, he remains in an induced coma, and there are definite concerns he may never make a full recovery. Yes, he was wearing a helmet, but if hadn’t been, it’s very likely he wouldn’t have survived at all.
Closer to home, Toronto resident and ABI survivor Sarah Briggs had a horrific experience when she was participating in a downhill race in 1994 at Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec. As she was speeding down the hill at roughly 120 km per hour, one of her bindings came loose during a rough section of the course. Both her skis came off and she landed face down on a particularly steep incline, and underwent 11 hours of surgery to repair major facial trauma including a broken jaw, injuries to a cheekbone and eye socket, diagonal lacerations across her face, the loss of five teeth. As a race participant she was wearing a helmet, but no face mask, and suffered an ABI (read her first-person account of the accident and her recovery here). Almost 20 years later, she reflects on the use of helmets in recreational skiing today:
“It would be good if it was mandatory in all provinces,” she says. “But it seems that many people are wearing helmets regularly when they ski.
“It used to be only when one was participating in a race, but these days, it seems people are heeding the warnings out there and putting on the head gear, in a similar way that they would put on a seatbelt in a car,” she adds.
There are helmet laws in one province, Nova Scotia, where they were made mandatory in November of 2012, though they are only required for skiing or snowboarding. In introducing this law, the Nova Scotia government was prompted by the occurrence of more than 10 severe traumatic brain injuries since 2000, all of which were attributed to skiing or snowboarding without proper head protection. Dr. David Clarke, interim head of neurosurgery at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, explained that the use of helmets can reduce the risk of injury by as much as 60 per cent.
Apart from using helmets, skiers and snowboarders should always ensure their equipment is in good order, including properly fitting boots and securing bindings. They should know how to use the lifts and to be aware of any danger signs. They should also be aware of their limitations and only use trails and hills suited to their level of difficulty. Above all, a safe distance should be maintained from others at all times in order to avoid collisions. Excellent advice on winter mountain safety in Canada, including the use of helmets, can be found on the website myhelmet.ca.
While helmets are required for professional and semi-professional hockey teams, outside of regulated skating clubs, there is no legislation concerning recreational skating. Yet, because it involves a slippery surface, skating can pose a considerable risk for falls, and this is especially true if the skater happens to be younger or a novice to the sport. While many skaters don’t bother with protective headgear, members of clubs affiliated with Skate Canada are obligated to wear a CSA-approved helmet.
Helmets should also be inspected regularly for cracks, scratches, and general wear and tear. It’s also recommended that those under 12 wear a full facial protector, as young skaters are more inclined to fall forward.
In addition to the use of protective headgear, simple ice etiquette can also help to prevent injuries. Even if you’re an expert skater, don’t race around the rink at breakneck speed while demonstrating your flashy footwork. Not everyone on the ice has the same level of skill, and there are those who may be on the rink for the first time.
Not all of us are urban dwellers with a handy rink nearby to practice our figure eights. For those in rural areas who skate on frozen ponds or rivers, the ice should always be inspected to ensure it’s thick enough for skating. Never skate near pockets of open water. Every spring we hear stories concerning people who have fallen through the ice, sometimes with dire consequences. Skating is fun and can be enjoyed either alone or in groups – but caution and common sense are paramount.
Sliding down a hill on a long narrow board or circular piece of plastic can be great fun – but it can also be potentially dangerous if the right precautions aren’t followed. With tobogganing, safety should be at the top of every parent’s mind because accidents – particularly in the form of head injuries – can occur so easily. While they may not feel the need, children should always wear a helmet while tobogganing. Don’t venture near roads, parking lots, large trees, fences, or on a frozen body of. At the start of every season, make sure the toboggan itself is in good order – sliding down a hill at considerable speed on something that isn’t solid and sturdy is only asking for trouble.
While urban dwellers might be hard-pressed to see snowmobiles being used for recreational purposes in the city, snowmobiling remains a popular winter pastime in rural areas of the country. Unfortunately, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, it’s also one of the most dangerous. The number of accidents involving snowmobiles far outnumber those connected with skiing or snowboarding. According to a report published by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, snowmobile crashes, rollovers, or plunges into lakes and rivers accounted for 41% of injuries as opposed to snowboarding and skiing accidents (20%), hockey (9%) and ice-skating (3%). The study also found that while drivers were more likely to sustain spinal injuries, passengers were injured less often, but were more likely to suffer head or bone injuries from being thrown off the vehicle.
These findings came as no surprise to Snoman, the Manitoba-based snowmobile club. Snoman spokesperson Duncan Stokes noted:
“Riders have to be informed before they get on to a machine. I think they have to be aware of their own riding limitations and have to be aware of the machine’s capabilities, and not only that, take the safety precautions, in terms of properly fitting equipment and not riding alone, and of course never to drink and ride.”
The report noted that in at least half of the accidents, alcohol was a major contributing factor. For more information on snowmobile safety, visit the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association.
Like the other three seasons, winter is only here for so long – those warm spring days will be here soon enough and skis, skates, and toboggans will be banished for yet another year. So get out and enjoy all the season has to offer – but play it safe!
Richard Haskell is a volunteer with the Brain Injury Society of Toronto’s Communications Committee