Are Extreme Sports Too Risky?


Each one of us has our own risk/reward calculus. Or perhaps we just weigh risk differently. Some people feel the sharp tang of risk just taking a stroll in the woods. Others can surf 30 foot waves or free-solo El Cap without breaking much of a sweat.

Chuck Patterson catches some air

Chuck Patterson catches some air

Regardless of where a person is on the risk continuum, others are always standing by to put that person in a box. Thrill-seekers take too many risks for their sport, say some. The risk-averse aren’t truly living, say others.

Since when did we care so much about the risks (or the lack thereof) that other people take?

The New York Times recently published an article about the risks in extreme sports. The author cites the soaring popularity of extreme sports and claims that, “many young people eager for an adrenaline rush are trying to copy their extreme sports idols, putting themselves at terrible risk.”

Injuries related to extreme sports are on the rise, and the participants are younger than ever. Overall, the author of the article urges participants to use safety equipment—especially helmets. The article quotes Dr. Sabesan, an orthopedic surgeon from Western Michigan School of Medicine, who recently presented her findings on a study about head and neck injuries in extreme sports. Her advice to parents of young rippers is to require “children who skateboard to wear a helmet and elbow and wrist guards.” She also recommends that snowboarders wear wrist guards and that the participants for other activities wear a helmet.

This debate has been going on for some time. Most people seem to agree that children should wear helmets, either because they are too young to decide for themselves or because they are too impulsive and tend to take bigger risks.

Motorcycle fatalities on the rise

Motorcycle fatalities on the rise

But what about adults? Should adults be required to wear a helmet while skiing or riding a motorcycle? Another recent article in New York Times cites a study that as motorcycle helmet laws are weakening, deaths are increasing.

Should we require helmets like we do seat belts? What about at ski areas? Legislated helmet use at ski areas is on the rise. Should we require our customers to strap on a helmet when they strap on their skis or board?

It would certainly help reduce head injuries.

But should we require it? Or should adults have the choice? I wear a helmet. But does that mean I make my friends wear one?

We’re all adults here. We should decide for ourselves. Even if helmet use could guarantee a safe landing, should we force people to wear one? I don’t know. I always get a little squeamish when I hear about requiring helmets.

Readers, what do you think? Should helmets be required? What are the pros and cons of legislating safety equipment? Is there a difference between making kids wear one versus adults?

11 responses »

  1. For most activities that can be dangerous or require maturity, the law differentiates between children and adults: buying a gun, driving a car or boat, doing dangerous work, drinking alcohol, and so on. Restrictions, age limits, and extra safety precautions are imposed until children can make responsible decisions for themselves.
    The case for mandating safety for adults is usually based on a different rationale: cost to society. It is costly to rescue people. Injuries drive up medical costs. Death can bring hardships to surviving spouses and children. To me, though, this is a slippery slope (a pun!) that could eventually see certain activities banned outright. I say, protect children but let adults decide for themselves.

    • That’s a good point Susie. I agree that we should allow adults to decide for themselves. And keeping kids safe is an important mandate for not only parents but also society at large. Sometimes, though, we can overdo it. If we never let kids skin their knees, they don’t have a taste of hardship and a little failure. If you don’t learn how to overcome a little hardship as a child, you won’t know how to do it when it really counts as an adult. I’m not saying we should let kids get hurt, but I also think we should let them play in the dirt, let them risk a little (not risk their lives, of course), let them lose without getting a trophy.

      • The Atlantic Monthly had a good article (last month, I think?) about overprotecting children that made some good points. You might enjoy reading it. I enjoy your blog, by the way. Even though I don’t always comment, I usually read each new entry. I’m looking forward to your new book also 🙂

        • Susie,
          I found that article in the Atlantic Monthly. Here’s a link to it The Overprotected Kid. Fascinating stuff. My childhood was dominated by unsupervised play, and I often wonder what all the parent-organized playdates and structured play will do to kids. Childhood should be about taking small risks that feel big and learning from them. If we wait until we are adults to take our first risk, then we might get overwhelmed.

  2. You should check out Jonathan Wunrow’s newest book, “Adventure Inward: A Risk Taker’s Book of Quotes” ! He covers a lot of the topics you’ve brought up in this post. Plus, it’s a great read for extreme sports enthusiasts!

  3. An enforcement to wear a helmet would require a penalty for not wearing one. “You didnt wear your helmet, you now have to pay $100.” sounds ridiculous upon every examination of the statement.

    You can decide whether or not you want to protect yourself. Suffering the consequences of poor decisions is what makes a strong species come to be in the first place ;).

    I’m enjoying your blog and The Edge Radio Interviews! Thanks for doing this.


    – James

    • I agree James. I personally think we need a little risk in our lives. Having said that, I wear a helmet to ski. But it would be strange to force others to do the same, since they aren’t endangering others.

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