Last week the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) confirmed that they would release a new national standard for ski and snowboard helmets in June, known as CSA Z263.1. Similar CSA standards are already in place for cycling and hockey helmets, but they may be amended after the results of ski and snowboard helmet tests.
However, without a federal law that would effectively prevent the sale of helmets that did not meet the new standard, helmet advocate Richard Kinar says there is a chance the standard will never be used.
“I have personally spoken to helmet manufacturers and they have told me that they would refuse to make the helmets unless they were forced to by the federal government by passing a law that would classify helmets as hazardous products,” said Kinar, who helped lobby for funding for the CSA to come up with the new standard.
Classifying the sub-standard helmets as hazardous materials would effectively make it illegal for retailers to sell such helmets.
Work is already underway to make that happen. In March 2007, Liberal MP and physician Hedy Fry tabled a Private Member’s Bill, C-412, that would prohibit the sale of non-CSA approved sports helmets under the Hazardous Products Act. The legislation would also apply to helmets used for kayaking, climbing, skateboarding, and other activities.
The legislation also has the support of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, as well as athletes like former Crazy Canuck Dave Irwin — himself the victim of a traumatic brain injury.
However, Fry’s request to fast-track legislation through an Order In Council has since been denied, and it could be several years before the Bill is even read in the House of Commons. Fry will push the issue at an upcoming session of Parliament, but without the support of the ruling Conservative Party there is still a long road ahead.
In the meantime, helmet manufactures can voluntarily produce helmets that meet the new standard, and stores can voluntarily sell them. Kinar is also looking into the possibility of creating a non-profit group to manufacture the helmets and make them available to the public.
“The real shame of it all is that now we have this great new standard that has the ability to save lives and prevent head injury and paralysis, and we may never use it,” he said. “We have no national injury prevention strategy, even when we have studies that show that preventable injuries are a leading killer and disabler of children in Canada.”
Preventable injuries, including sports injuries, also cost the health care system an estimated $15 billion a year, according to figures compiled by Kinar and the Brain Injury Association of Canada.
As well, a recent U.S. study found that extreme sports are creating a brain injury epidemic, and that brain injuries are a leading cause of death and disability for men under the age of 35. In Canada, more than 100,000 people suffer brain injuries each year.
According to Kinar, the standards came about through extensive testing of materials, as well as consultation with leading brain injury experts and ski and snowboard industry groups like the Quebec Ski Areas Association. He believes the new helmets would look similar to existing helmets, but with different materials inside to soften and absorb impacts.
He’s encouraged that helmet use in skiing and snowboarding is higher than ever before, but says that anybody purchasing a helmet should be reassured that it meets the highest safety standards.
“People aren’t reading labels or asking questions about the different safety standards, they’re putting on the helmets and seeing how it looks in a mirror,” he said. “People just assume that helmets are the same, or provide the same level of protection, when that’s not the case.”
Education about standards must be a component of any helmet campaign, but Kinar is adamant that the real issue should be what’s available now that CSA has a standard in place.
As for public awareness, the release of a CSA standard also coincides with the release of a new film called Wipe Out that follows three B.C. athletes who have suffered traumatic brain injuries in sports. Olympic snowboarder Ross Rebagliati narrates the new documentary, which features skateboarder Jon Gocer, dirt bike rider Chris Tutin, and snowboarder Chris Dufficy.
The documentary will premier on May 29 at the Doxa Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.
“I think this documentary will be a real eye-opener for a lot of kids, especially when you have someone like Jon Gocer saying things like he couldn’t even follow a chocolate chip cookie recipe after his injury. Chris Tutin, who took years to recover from his injury — he has a line, ‘it’s either wear a helmet up here, or wear a diaper down there.’”
Shortly after the festival, the documentary will be put online on the Knowledge Network website, along with other short film segments, a video blog, and tools for teachers and students to use in schools.
“The timing (of the CSA standard and Wipe Out) is just a coincidence, but it does a lot to keep the pressure on the federal government,” Kinar said. “We’re doing what we can, but the ball is really in their court.”