Frisco skier pushes for more regulations to prevent hit-and-run accidents
SUMMIT COUNTY — In 2012, Frisco resident Dave Owens was seriously injured at Copper Mountain Resort by a snowboarder who collided with him and then left the scene.
Ever since, Owens, who was 71 when he was injured, has been on a campaign to prevent reckless skiing and hit-and-run accidents.
“It’s very frustrating knowing that this guy put me in the hospital and in a wheelchair and didn’t want to hang out and take responsibility,” he said.
He has contacted about 20 people during the last three years, including law-enforcement officials, lawyers, ski-area managers, local and state government representatives and U.S. Forest Service employees.
All those people have sympathized with his story but told him that ski areas and law enforcement are already doing all they can, and that the issue comes down to skiers’ and snowboarders’ personal responsibility.
Owens approached the problem in two ways: Compel resorts to publicly report their accidents so they are further incentivized to reduce them, and better educate skiers and riders about their legal obligations.
Ski areas currently send their injury information to the National Ski Areas Association, which compiles and releases detailed statistics and trends annually. However, Owens wants to see what kind of social or legal change could make ski areas publicly report their accident statistics individually in the hope of promoting safety.
“It’s public lands. It’s Forest Service lands, and the Forest Service should require it,” he said.
He even talked to a former ski patroller from Scotland, Dr. Mike Langran, who studies ski injuries and whose research helped convince Scottish resorts to publicly report their accidents.
In the U.S., however, Owens has been unsuccessful.
WOULD MORE REPORTING HELP?
White River National Forest spokesman Bill Kight said the Forest Service doesn’t collect accident statistics or fatality records from individual resorts. None of the federal agency’s special-use permit holders are required to provide such information, he said, and forcing ski resorts to do so would take a national policy change.
In a statement from the state’s ski-area association, Colorado Ski Country USA, provided by spokeswoman Jennifer Rudolph, the association said it would be nearly impossible for ski areas to accurately track the variety of injuries from twisted ankles and thumb jams to serious life-threatening injuries.
“Nor is it clear what meaningful value such information would provide to the public if provided on a resort-by-resort or state-by-state, single-season basis,” and that Owens’ calls for more reporting wouldn’t impact those who flee the scene of a collision, the statement argued.
In the fourth 10-year interval injury study commissioned by the NSAA, researchers Jasper E. Shealy and Carl F. Ettlinger analyzed ski-patrol incident reports and found that in the 2010-11 season, skiers were about twice as likely to be involved in a collision with another person (9.3 percent of all medically-significant incidents) than snowboarders (4.8 percent).
The overall rate of collisions with other people hasn’t change significantly among snowsports participants from 1980 to 2010, ranging from 6 to 8 percent of all accidents.
For snowboarders specifically, though, the rate of collisions with other people has decreased from 15 percent in 1990 to less than 13 percent in 2000 and 6.9 percent in 2010. In a collision between a skier and a snowboarder, it is usually the skier who collides with the snowboarder rather than vice versa, the study found.
NSAA director of risk and regulatory affairs Dave Byrd said the association will commission a study of injuries every five years instead of every 10, starting in 2016.
PASS A SAFETY QUIZ
Owens has also focused on encouraging Copper and other Colorado resorts to better educate skiers and riders about the legal requirement to stay at the scene of a collision with another person and provide their contact information.
Copper spokeswoman Stephanie Sweeney said the resort displays the NSAA skier responsibility code in several locations and prints it on the trail map. The map also tells skiers and riders that they must give their name and address to a resort employee before leaving the scene of an accident that results in injury.
Deb Melton, a Silverthorne resident, has worked at Copper in recent winters, as well as at Breckenridge Ski Resort, Winter Park Resort and Loveland Ski Area, since moving to the Colorado mountains in 1983.
Every resort faces the issue of reckless skiing and hit-and-runs, and they all try to educate the public, she said.
“I think sometimes the resorts feel a little bit like, ‘We’ve done a lot, but we can’t do it all,’ and that may be fair,” she said, adding that, across Colorado, people should be asking, “‘What as a snow-riding state are we doing?’”
She said resorts could require season-pass holders and seasonal workers to pass safety quizzes, and industry groups and government officials could fund educational campaigns with PSAs on TV and radio stations that resort visitors tune into.
“If we can do a better job of getting the word out about what the safety code is, which already exists, then perhaps we can reduce hit-and-runs and injuries,” Melton said. “If the general public was more aware, then maybe other people who witness the accident would try to also apprehend or stop the person or at least keep them in sight until they saw the patroller.”
She acknowledged the difficulty of finding an offending skier or snowboarder in a sea of similar looking people on the mountain.
An attorney with Chalat Hatten Koupal & Banker, a Denver-based firm that specializes in ski injury law, said resorts are protected by state law from liability for most accidents and injuries. Russell Hatten said ski patrollers and law enforcement could step up their efforts to find and cite people.
MOST PEOPLE ARE GOOD
Summit County Sheriff’s Office technician Mark Watson said the ski areas coordinate with local law enforcement to try to track down those who flee accidents, especially when a skier or snowboarder could face courts summons, fines and criminal charges.
Proper response takes timely reporting, detailed suspect descriptions and effective communication of information, he said. Though some people are never caught, he said, he doesn’t see hit-and-run collisions as a serious issue.
“Most people I’ve found are pretty good about staying on scene,” he said. In the last five years especially, “the ski areas have done an exceptional job with their slope-watching, and having people on the mountain is really helping that.”
Melton, who was also hit a few years ago by an out-of-control skier who was on terrain above his ability level, maintained that more preventative measures should be taken — even if hit-and-run collisions are rare.
“If you’re the person hit, and you’re injured, does it really matter how many times it’s happened?” she said.
Owens said after more than 40 years skiing, maybe he was due for a serious accident. He has accepted that karma will punish the snowboarder who left him on the mountain with broken bones, he said, but he will continue to push for change.
“I’m not giving up yet, but it’s looking like it’s an impossible task,” he said.