Risk homeostasis, or why big accidents make for bad law


Inevitably, in the wake of the very sad death of Natasha Richardson, Quebec is toying with the possibility of a mandatory helmet law for all skiers; in the meantime, there are anecdotal reports about increased helmet use at Tremblant already.

There are some obvious questions to ask here about proper risk assessment, along with a legitimate debate about the balance of personal freedom and corporate liability. But I also wonder if, beyond this, a helmet law might be counterproductive.

Queen’s psych prof Gerald Wilde popularized the notion of “risk homeostasis,” the idea that everyone has his or her own fixed level of acceptable risk. When the level of risk in one part of your life goes up, you compensate in other areas by engaging in more risky behaviour. So the idea is this: downhill skiing is largely a form of thrill-seeking, with the degree of thrill determined by how much you push your risk envelope. Putting a helmet on merely expands the size of the envelope, so in order to achieve the same thrill level with a helmet on, you need to ski faster, more recklessly, on steeper pistes, and so on.

Most significantly, it seems to me that back-country skiing has killed far more people this year in Canada than routine downhilling. If a helmet law pushes a significant number of people off the safety of Tremblant and into the dangers of back-country, it might end up leading to more deaths and injuries.

I have no data at hand on this. Thoughts?

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Risk homeostasis, or why big accidents make for bad law

  1. I agree, no data to add, just personal experience of adrenaline seeking backs this up. I think she was on a beginner slope, so maybe the hill should force beginners to use proper safety equipment.

    • After posting that comment, I went out and rolled my ankle sideways playing basketball, had to get another player to straighten it. I was not wearing high tops, moral of the story; wear the proper gear for whatever sport you are in, accidents happen fast.

  2. I am a skier and a snowboarder – when I was a kid I raced an you had to wear a helmet.

    When I wasn’t racing I couldn’t wait to get my helmet off – it was hot and big and bulky. Since then helmets have gotten a lot cheaper, a lot more comfortable, and are worn by a lot more peole. I’ve gone back to wearing one.

    But I’m still not convinced that it should be regulated / legislated. For the volume of skiers on the slopes in any given year, deaths are relatively limited.

  3. It is indeed very sad about Ms. Richardson and most especially for her family.

    If what I read is complete then she was taking lessons and on a beginner hill. Also, according to what I’ve read doctors say she also acted in a normal manner after what she thought was not a particularly bad fall.

    Perhaps it is a case of awareness and education so that beginners have to wear all protective equipment, trainers know to send a person who has fallen and “seems” okay to medical care and the person who has fallen knows what kind of signs to be aware of and seek out first aid right away.

  4. I can’t point to any studies off the top of my head, but anecdotally I’ve heard this very point that Andrew makes about ski helmets made before when living in a BC skitown, and recall that someone may in fact have crunched the numbers for a medical journal at some point.

    Before the fundie-libertarian seatbelt-unfastening brigade comes out and makes an ass of themselves, though, it’s worth stressing that the circumstances surrounding the use and non-use of ski helmets are different from, say, bike helmets or skateboard helmets.

    For a competent skiier doing a lackadaisical cruise on an uncrowded blue run, the risk of your head making sudden contact with the snow or a tree are roughly the same as they are carrying a bag of groceries in from your car to the house. Indeed, provided you’re out West (like all good skiiers should be) and not on Eastern hardpack, the potential blow to your head from a fall is going to be much softer than contact with a hardwood floor or a cement driveway.

    The only reason a competent skiier ever elevates their level of personal risk beyond going-to-the-mailbox-to-collect-the-mail levels is precisely because they choose to go after a bit of a rush—which, let’s be blunt, is the reason most of us who ski, do so. And this is where there’s some evidence that helmets countervail their injury-mitigation function by dampening your body’s natural fear reflex when it comes to aiming yourself down between a row of tightly-spaced trees or throwing yourself off a five-foot kicker. This isn’t really the case with bike helmets or hockey helmets.

    I learned as a kid wearing a helmet, raced wearing a helmet, but never wore one when I skiied freely and continue to go bucketless to this day. That said, I’m pretty sure the rate of voluntary helmet use by teen and adults is much higher in recent years than it was in the past, probably because, as SAB notes, they have come a long way… they’re lighter, better ventilated, and keep your head warmer on a cold day.

    Those skiiers rushing to put on helmets because of the Richardson accident should probably first run their skis into the shop to check that their bindings have been properly calibrated–that strikes me as a simple step that could probably prevent a lot more injury on the slopes than we see at present. If they then want to put on a helmet, more power to them.

    • Good lord, what a rational, thoughtful response. Clearly you are NOT welcome here. Can’t you at least say something like, “If only ONE life is saved by a new mandatory helmet law…” or perhaps, “First the LIEberals will force us to put helmets on our head, then they’ll make us read from the Koran!”. You know, the usual stuff.

  5. What did this have to do with skiing? Any one of us could fall over at any moment, conk ourselves on the head, and end up with a similar tragedy. You can’t wear a helmet all the time. For God’s sake, can’t people just accept death without running around looking for “solutions”? This is life, not a PG-13 video game.

  6. The man on the clapham omnibus probably heeds the reason for a helmet and does not seek out greater danger.

  7. A mandatory helmet law for skiers is definitely not necessary. We need a mandatory helmet law for celebrities.

  8. I believe research has shown that when anti-lock brakes came into common use, most drivers started following other vehicles more closely.

    I have observed that vehicles with four-wheel drive are the most common type to appear in the ditch under slippery road conditions, but I haven’t actually compared the proportions in the ditch to the proportions on the road, so I hesitate to draw a conclusion.

    I personally started wearing a bike helmet before they were common, and installed a seatbelt in my vehicle before it was required. I carry bear spray while hiking, too.

  9. While the helmet police are at it, why not make helmets mandatory in cars? People do die of head injuries in automobile accidents everyday. Famous people have even died in cars.

    Seems as though you can do anything in your car, but when one is participating in any leisure active believed to be even remotely dangerous, a helmet is required.

  10. I always find it helps to look at the facts before commenting. I don’t have any data but Professor Jason Shealy, of the Rochester Institute of Technology, seems to. Copying from the Wikipedia article:

    There is evidence that helmeted skiers tend to go faster.[3]
    “There is no evidence they reduce fatalities,” said Dr. Jasper Shealy, a professor from Rochester Institute of Technology who has been studying skiing and snowboarding injuries for more than 30 years. “We are up to 40 percent usage but there has been no change in fatalities in a 10-year period.”[4][5]

    1. “Features of Snell’s Ski Helmet Standard”. Snell Memorial Foundation, Inc.. 4 May 2005. Retrieved on 2009-03-19.
    2. “How to Buy a Ski Helmet: Snowboard & Skiing Helmets”. ABC of Skiing. MaxLifestyle International. 2008. Retrieved on 2009-03-19.
    3. Shealy, Jasper E.; Johnson, Robert J. (July 2005). “How Fast Do Winter Sports Participants Travel on Alpine Slopes?”. Journal of ASTM International (JAI) 2 (7): 8 p. doi:10.1520/JAI12092. Retrieved on 2009-03-19.
    4. Fletcher Doyle (4 March 2008). “Use your head on the ski slopes”. The Buffalo News. Retrieved on 2009-03-19.
    5. Shealy, Jasper E.; Johnson, Robert J.; Ettlinger, Carl F. (November 2008). “Do Helmets Reduce Fatalities or Merely Alter the Patterns of Death?”. Journal of ASTM International (JAI) 5 (10): 4 p. doi:10.1520/JAI101504. Retrieved on 2009-03-19.

    • I always find it helps to look at the facts before commenting.

      You must be new here.

  11. Hey Potter,

    I started wearing a helmet a couple of years ago. When I started wearing it I don’t think it changed my skiing style at all. However, I think you might be right that there is a risk homeostasis thing going on, because my skiing style, and that of many skiers I observe on the hill, had already changed substantially. The advent of the shaped ski has led a lot more people to be able to carve turns on hardpack, especially at higher speeds. That carving feels really good, so people are skiing a lot faster. But catch an edge once or twice and you will very quickly understand just how much faster you are going, and that the potential consequences are maybe more than you’d like. So, you either slow down, or don a helmet…

    Sadly the helmet doesn’t help everyone of the obstacle you end up hitting is another skier. Nor does this theory explain anything about beginners getting hurt. But I do not think mandatory helmets would lead people to ski any faster or more dangerously than they already are.

    • edit: “…doesn’t help everyone IF the obstacle…”

  12. the loss of Natasha Richardson makes think i might wear a helmet next time I go skiing

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