Sarah Burke's Death: Can Gear Keep Up With Skiers?

Helmets and other protective gear can only do so much to prevent serious injuries and deaths for high-flying skiers and snowboarders.

THE GIST

Equipment probably did not play a role in the death of freestyle skier Sarah Burke.

Helmets protect against some head injuries, but they are not a panacea.

Researchers are working on new technologies that might make protective equipment safer.

As friends, family and fans of freestyle skier Sarah Burke mourn the athlete's death from a recent superpipe accident, the tragedy has drawn attention to the dangers of a daredevil sport. Burke's death, which followed a routine 540-degree flat spin and what started out as an innocuous landing, has also raised new questions about what might make high-flying snow sports safer.

Rules already require airbags on pipes to protect skiers and snowboarders during training. And athletes must wear helmets. But is that enough? Could better equipment prevent gravity-defying athletes from succumbing to concussions, traumatic brain injuries and worse?

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Probably not, experts say. Studies suggest that helmets, boots, bindings and other gear do their part to lessen the risk of certain injuries. But every mechanical device has limitations.

Many products, such as wrist guards for snowboarders, fail to actually provide any benefit at all and can even make the situation worse.

And even as companies continue to release new protective gear, the rate of fatalities in snow sports hasn't budged since researchers started tracking the numbers 40 years ago. Our bodies just weren't designed to withstand hard impacts at super-fast speeds and upside-down falls from crazy heights, said Jasper Shealy, an ergonomist and ski injury researcher, now retired from the Rochester Institute of Technology. For certain kinds of collisions, it doesn't matter what kind of protection you wear.

"The landing gear called our legs are really marvelous and they work really well," Shealy said. "On the other hand, landing on your head is not a normal way to land, and we are not well designed to withstand that kind of impact. Landing on the back of the head or the top of the shoulders such that the athlete's feet are literally up over his head and he gets bent like a jackknife, you get horrendous injuries."

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