The Canadian Paediatric Society is calling for legislation that would make it mandatory for skiers and snowboarders of any age to wear a helmet.

In a position paper released Tuesday, the CPS cited research that shows snowboarding and skiing are the second- and third-leading causes of injuries related to outdoor winter activities, after hockey.

The agency pointed out that helmets can protect against many of these injuries, which range from sprains and fractures to head and neck trauma.

"People think that because they are an experienced skier or snowboarder they won't get injured. But they can't control external factors like the terrain or other skiers who might not be as experienced," Dr. Natalie Yanchar, chair of the CPS injury prevention committee, said in a statement.

"The risk is especially high for children and youth, who have increased vulnerability to head injuries and take longer to recover."

Yanchar said that with mandatory legislation, "governments can send a strong message that helmets are important and reduce the risk of brain injury, disability and death."

The paper cited a pooled analysis of research that showed skiers and snowboarders who wear a helmet are less likely to suffer a head injury. The data showed that a helmet reduces the risk of head injury by 35 per cent.

The statement said new laws would be especially beneficial to children and youth, who face greater risk of injury to their lower extremities and their head and neck, including severe head injuries.

The agency also dismissed critics who claim that helmets increase the risk of neck injuries, or encourage riskier behaviour in skiers and snowboarders. The paper cited research that failed to find a link between helmets and neck injuries, or risky behaviour.

Currently, Nova Scotia is the only province planning to make helmets mandatory for skiers and snowboarders. Effective November 2012, the province will fine skiers and snowboarders caught without a helmet on a ski hill $250.

The serious risks related to winter sports were thrust into the spotlight last week, when Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke sustained a head injury in a training incident at the Park City Mountain resort in Utah.

Burke, 29, remains in the Neuro Critical Care Unit at the University of Utah hospital in Salt Lake City. Doctors had planned to update her condition at a news conference scheduled for Monday. However, those plans were cancelled Monday morning.

According to the position paper, about 15 per cent of Canadians over age 12 say they strapped on skis or a snowboard at least once in 2008-2009.

However, there is little hard data on just how many skiers and snowboarders also don a helmet. Surveys of ski lift operators and skiers put helmet use in Canada at about 55 per cent.

The CPS issued recommendations to those who like to hit the slopes, including:

  • Wear goggles, and wrist guards for snowboarders.
  • Check equipment at the start of each ski or snowboard day, and adjust boots and bindings as required.
  • Don't borrow equipment and only rent from a reputable ski shop.
  • Take lessons with a certified instructor.
  • Never ski or snowboard alone.
  • Abstain from drugs or alcohol when hitting the slopes.

In a statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics said it "strongly endorses" the new CPS recommendations.

"Helmets have been demonstrated to significantly reduce the risk of head injury, and advocacy efforts should focus on the mandatory use of helmets," said H. Gary Gardner, chair of the AAP's council on injury, violence and poison prevention. "Pediatricians should counsel families that skiers and snowboarders should always wear a helmet, at all ages and at all skill levels."