Natasha Richardson’s nightmare accident on a Quebec ski slope Tuesday has already generated a new debate about ski helmets.
There’s currently no law in Canada requiring skiers or snowboarders to wear helmets. And the snow-sport helmets now on the market are not required to meet any standard.
The voices raised on this issue each winter, and especially this week, tend to be shouting one of two messages, either “government must make us safe” or “leave us alone.” Quebec’s emergency-room doctors, for example, proposed this month that helmets be made mandatory on the province’s ski slopes. Ski operators, on the other hand, no doubt aware that a few of their customers would rather stay home than wear head-gear, generally take the line that helmet use should be left to individual choice.
With great sympathy for the stricken actress and her family and all accident victims, we think the most sensible position lies in between those two cited above: Governments should not require helmets, but skiers and snowboarders should wear them voluntarily.
The world is packed full of dangers we should know to avoid. It’s a lamentable modern reflex to insist that government has the responsibility to keep each of us safe in every circumstance. Certainly it makes sense for governments to license ski resorts, requiring operators to meet minimum safety standards. But as a practical matter, regulating a few hundred ski hills is different from regulating hundreds of thousands of skiers.
Helmet culture is changing. Once a rarity on Quebec hills, helmeted skiers are now commonplace. This trend comes not from government busybodies ordering us around, but from the slow steady spread of common sense. As with drunk driving, smoking, and other social ills, changes will take effect more rapidly if the impetus comes from the bottom up than from the top down. This can, however, be encouraged by a government education campaign, especially aimed at parents.
Another thing Ottawa really should be doing is imposing minimum standards on anything sold in Canada as a ski helmet. British Columbia Liberal Hedy Fry, who is a medical doctor, has been trying for two years to get such standards enacted into law; the Conservative government has shown no interest. That’s a shame, because people who want head protection should be able to rely on the helmets they buy.
Of course, no helmet will protect us from every crash on the slopes, or from freak accidents. And government, even less, has the power to keep us safe. That responsibility ultimately always rests with individuals.