Calif. seeks nation’s toughest helmet rules for skiers, snowboarders; resorts face regulations

By Cathy Bussewitz, AP
Monday, March 15, 2010

CA bills push rules for ski, snowboard industry

ALPINE MEADOWS, Calif. — On a ridge near the 8,600-foot summit of Alpine Meadows ski resort, 17-year-old snowboarder Lucas Fuller scopes out the many chutes and bowls that radiate out from Ward Peak.

It’s a perfect powder day, with clear skies and fresh snow delivered to the Lake Tahoe area the day before. The teenager from Reno, Nev., likes the resort because it has numerous ungroomed, expert-level slopes that approximate the back-country.

For this run, the teenager from Reno, Nev., is looking for a route that will provide cliffs and bumps so he can catch some air. Despite warning signs at the base of the lift, Fuller is not wearing a helmet.

“I stopped wearing a helmet a long time ago, and it just feels better,” he says. “I’ve been riding for a long time, and I’m pretty confident.”

But if some California lawmakers have their way, the decision to wear a helmet will no longer be a personal choice.

Two bills introduced by Democratic lawmakers from Northern California would require minors to wear a helmet while skiing or snowboarding. One of them also would extend to resort operations, requiring extensive injury reporting, sign posting and safety planning.

If the bills pass and are signed into law, they would give California the nation’s most restrictive helmet laws for skiers and snowboarders and the most stringent requirements for ski resorts.

Lawmakers in New York and New Jersey also are pushing mandates for ski helmets. One of six New York bills, and the only one to advance out of committee, would require skiers under 15 to wear a helmet. A New Jersey bill, if passed would require helmets for skiers and snowboarders under 14.

Quebec lawmakers considered requiring helmet use after actress Natasha Richardson died after a fall in 2009, but no legislation was introduced.

Even without legislative action, the use of helmets has gained in popularity. A survey by the National Ski Areas Association found that 48 percent of all skiers and snowboarders wore helmets during the 2007-08 season.

One of the California bills, by Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, would require all skiers and snowboarders under age 18 to wear helmets. It would place the enforcement burden on parents, who would face a fine of up to $25 if their children didn’t comply.

A bill by Democratic state Assemblyman Dave Jones of Sacramento is more far-reaching.

It has a similar helmet mandate for minors but would require ski resorts, not parents, to enforce it. The Jones bill also would force all California ski resorts to report every injury and fatality on the slopes, coordinate with other resorts to adopt standardized safety signs and equipment, prepare annual safety plans and make all that information available to the public.

Such requirements are “extreme and unnecessary,” said Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association.

“Not only are no other resorts in other ski states subject to these kind of requirements, no other recreational activity is subject to this kind of record-keeping,” she said.

Link said her group, which is based in Colorado, would support the Senate bill dealing solely with helmets if it’s made clear that the resorts don’t have to enforce it.

Blaise Carrig, co-president of the mountain division for Colorado-based Vail Resorts, agreed.

“If you’re going to have legislation, at least have it be the right legislation,” he said.

Vail Resorts, which operates Heavenly on the California-Nevada border and several ski areas in Colorado, has tried to encourage youngsters to wear helmets by setting an example: All employees are required to wear them while skiing or snowboarding.

In 2005, the British Medical Journal reported that wearing a helmet reduced the risk of head injuries among skiers and snowboarders by 29 percent.

All the head trauma cases from Lake Tahoe-area resorts are sent to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno. On average, the hospital admits one head injury patient from the slopes a day during ski season.

Dr. John Swanson, an emergency physician at the hospital, said that without helmets, “Their brain suffers more trauma, and they are more likely to have slower recovery time and permanent brain damage.”

Despite evidence that wearing helmets reduces the risk of severe injury, Jones said many children and teenagers will not ask for them on their own. He said it was not easy persuading his own children to wear helmets.

“I think for many parents who have the fight with their kids, which some of us have had, it’s actually not a bad thing to be able to say, ‘Look, you know what? Not only is this the right thing to do and not only would I insist that you do it, but it’s also a legal requirement,’” he said.

California already has a law requiring minors to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle.

In expanding his bill to include wide-ranging regulations for resorts, Jones worked closely with Dan Gregorie, whose daughter died at Alpine Meadows in 2006, even though she was wearing a helmet.

Jessica Gregorie fell while hiking to an expert slope. She slid roughly 100 yards down the side of a mountain. Alpine said the woman, who was 24, was outside its boundaries.

After his daughter’s death, Dan Gregorie said he asked for additional information about the resort’s injury statistics and safety plans but hit a wall.

“It became very clear to me as I began to look at it that the industry has no standards or practices that they share with each other or that they advocate within the industry,” said Gregorie.

The majority of ski resorts in California operate on U.S. Forest Service land and are required to report fatalities to that agency. The Forest Service did not respond to a request for more information about injury reporting and safety plans.

The National Ski Areas Association compiles information on a national level but does not make it available by individual resort. Its most recent report, for the 2008-09 season, shows 39 deaths nationwide.

Those who work the slopes say there is no way for resorts to accurately track injuries. Ski patrol members are trained to deliver quick, outdoor emergency care but are not emergency medical technicians.

“Our purpose is to stabilize people,” said Stewart Foreman, a lawyer and volunteer member of the Alpine Meadows ski patrol. “In that process, actually diagnosing a medical condition doesn’t happen.”

Federal privacy laws prevent ski resort employees from following a patient’s progress at the hospital.

Jones’ office amended his bill to remove the requirement that the injury and death information be retained in a state database because the cost is too high. Instead, resorts would collect the information and make it available to anyone who requests it.

Even with such alterations to the bills, ski industry officials said they were wary of any attempt to impose a lengthy list of rules and regulations, in part because skiers and snowboarders accept a certain amount of risk when they decide to head down a mountain.

“This is a sport. We’re not Disneyland,” said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. “When you’re above 7,000 feet in the winter in the Sierra, you’re in a very different kind of environment.”

Associated Press Writer Amy Luft in Montreal contributed to this report.

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