Should helmets be required for skiing kids?
The Denver Post
DENVER – California and New Jersey are poised to adopt the nation’s first-ever laws requiring all kids younger than 18 years old to wear helmets while skiing.
Could Colorado, the nation’s ski capital, be next?
No legislation is under consideration here, but helmets already are virtually ubiquitous on the state’s younger skiers.
“To me, this is the law catching up to where people already are. Very few kids don’t have helmets these days,” said Rob Katz, chief executive officer of Vail Resorts, which supported the California bill and operates the Heavenly ski area in the state. His company, with four ski areas in Colorado, including Vail and Beaver Creek, would support similar rules here.
The state’s largest ski operators – Vail Resorts, Aspen Skiing and Intrawest – already require kids in ski school to wear helmets. Many resorts also require their employees to wear them while working on the slopes. Even more mandate helmets for terrain-park riders.
In 2008-09, the National Ski Areas Association counted 39 deaths in 57.4 million skier days in the United States. That annual tally hasn’t varied much in any year in the past decade.
Among those 2008-09 deaths, 31 skiers were not wearing helmets. That same season, the association counted 44 serious injuries – 32 of those skiers were not wearing helmets.
In a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in February, researchers found that skiers’ risk of head injury fell by 35 percent with helmet use. The same study found no connection between helmet use and neck injury, a common concern among the dwindling number of helmet opponents.
Even without the threat of laws and fines, helmet use climbs roughly 5 percent every year. Half of all skiers and snowboarders in America wear helmets, up from 25 percent in 2002-03. Helmets are on 90 percent of Colorado’s skiers 9 years old and younger, and the state already leads the country in helmet usage, said Melanie Mills, president of Colorado Ski Country, the trade group representing 22 of the state’s resorts.
“We will probably get pretty darn close to all kids wearing helmets in a few years,” Mills said.
Proposed legislation to mandate bike helmets on Colorado kids fizzled this spring, ending in a watered-down recommendation for increased education on the importance of bike helmets.
Colorado also has no helmet requirements for adult motorcyclists, even though Colorado State Patrol statistics show that about 60 of the 88 motorcyclists killed on Colorado roads in 2009 were not wearing helmets.
The ski association, based in Lakewood, initially opposed the California legislation, which still requires the governor’s signature after passing through the state’s Senate last week. It would impose a $25 fine on parents of helmetless violators. Amendments that moved enforcement responsibilities away from resorts swayed the NSAA to support the California law, which is now modeled after the state’s bicycle helmet law for kids.
“As long as parents are responsible for putting the helmets on the kids and the resorts are not responsible for enforcement,” the group backs the California law, said Geraldine Link, the association’s policy director.
The ski association represents 332 ski areas. It also worked with a brain-injury group in New Jersey to help draft legislation that would mandate helmets on skiers 17 and younger. The New Jersey Senate last week approved the measure.
A New York legislator has taken the idea even further, proposing mandating helmets for skiers of all ages and fining resorts for every unprotected cranium on the slopes as well as skiers who flout the rule.
Lawmakers in both New Jersey and New York have pondered mandatory helmet laws several times before.
The law in California is likely to prod other ski states to consider such requirements, Link said.
“Incredibly high-usage rates reached voluntarily recently may obviate the need for mandates, but it will certainly be a consideration in many states over the next few years,” she said.
So long as they don’t start mandating helmets on every skier, said Derec Shuler, a Denver-area skier who wears a helmet but thinks laws and fines take the wrong tack.
“We need to promote awareness but not expand nannyism to something that people should take responsibility for,” Shuler said.