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Rise in ski helmet use, but no reduction in fatalities. Why?

UPDATE: Schumacher still in coma following skiing accident

The recent skiing accident of Michael Schumacher has shook the sporting world. The F1 world and many more people are praying for him. We also heard the impact was so severe that the helmet broke in to two. The doctors were sure that if it weren’t for the helmet, Schumi wouldn’t have even made it to the hospital. In this case, the helmet has played a big part in reducing the impact of the crash.

But, if we look beyond this individual case and examine the overall statistics on skiing accidents, helmet usage, head injuries and fatalities, there is a rather disturbing trend. There are news reports that suggest that while ski helmet usage has improved significantly, the fatalities due to head injuries have remained pretty much the same over the last 10 years. Helmet usage has tripled as compared to 2003. While there is a reduction in head injuries, the fatalities have remained the same. Ten year average fatalities from 2000 has been 41.5 fatalities per year, 54 fatalities having occurred in 2011/12. (NSSA facts). Of these 54, 36 were wearing helmets. (Skiing now might suddenly seem like a dangerous sport, but at 54 fatalities a year, its lot less dangerous than riding bicycles which lead to about 800 fatalities a year.)

Also, most of the fatalities involved Men, especially in the age group of late teens to 30’s. And a majority of these accident victims are above average at skiing, they’re not amateurs.

What would explain this ?

Overconfidence bias / Private optimism could be a credible explanation as far as the demographic of fatalities is concerned. There is research that supports a hypotheses that men tend to be more overconfident than women. An amateur would be cautious and hence ski at low speeds. An above average would be more susceptible to private optimism. Some 90% of motorists think that they are excellent/above average at driving. The believe that they are better than other drivers and that their chance of meeting an accident is lower than that of others. This could lead to people taking more risk.

The most intriguing observation though is this lack of correlation between increase in helmet usage and fatalities.  Here’s where John Adams’ take on individual risk management – the ‘Risk Thermostat’ could helpin making sense of this.  According to Mr. Adams, each individual has a specific level of risk-taking with which they are comfortable. If their sense of safety is increased, say by protective gear like seatbelts, helmets or systemic changes like ABS, their behaviour becomes riskier – they compensate for this increase in safety till the set-level is reached again. The safer we feel, therefore, the more risky our behaviour. There are studies that indicate that drivers who wear seat belts tend to drive faster. The net impact of ABS on car collisions has been negligible because drivers have driving faster and braking late. We have compensated for the safety feature. This is often referred to as “Offset hypothesis”

So, its likely here that those wearing helmets are skiing faster, taking more risks and becoming more adventurous, simply because there is an increase in overall sense of safety. So, in a strange way, the more safer we feel, the more risky our behaviour.

How can we solve this ?

While we improve the safety features, its important to induce a sense of vulnerability, a feeling of being unsafe. This could be through better design of safety systems and signage or by having interventions at point of action that introduce an element of vulnerability. The idea is not to take regressive steps like reducing safety gear or features. Safety standards should be high, but the place should feel a little unsafe.

For now, lets hope that Schumi pulls through.

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