Putting the brakes on mountainside speedsters for safety's sake

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The ski industry is making a concerted effort to curb reckless skiing. Of particular concern are advanced and expert skiers who ski faster than either conditions or their ability warrants.

While skiing's overall injury rate has dropped dramatically in the past 20 years, last year's 33 fatalities and 15 serious injuries nationwide represent a 24 percent jump over the previous season, and 36 percent over the winter of 1979 -80. Ski areas are taking the lead in nipping any potential trend. As on the highways, excessive speed appears to be the problem.

''The single message that we're trying to get across is to use common sense on a trail or slope as you would on a highway,'' says Steve Over, executive director of the National Ski Patrol System. ''You certainly wouldn't drive a car on the median strip all out down the freeway, so don't go all out down the edge of the trail. That's the single greatest hazard at a ski area - a tree. It's amazing. Think about a guy jogging and running into a tree. . . . Then you watch skiers and see how close people ski to the trees and how fast they are going. It doesn't take much common sense to realize that one small miscalculation can be very serious. Trees don't bend too well.''

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One theory holds that a combination of factors has led to excessive speed on the slopes: better skiers, better equipment, and better slope grooming. With top-notch gear, including today's longer skis, which lend themselves to speed, good skiers on a manicured trail can really open up and will ski faster than their ability safely allows. What too many of them aren't doing, says a veteran professional patroller, is allowing for the unexpected, such as a patch of ice or another skier.

The industry's answer to the problem is better education. Safety is being emphasized in public-service announcements on skiing and ski instruction. Equipment suppliers are being urged ''not to promote speed in skiing.''

For now, there is no nationwide effort for ski patrols to ''crack down'' on excessive speed. Nor is the National Ski Areas Association urging its members to groom slopes less, thus making it more difficult to ski fast. Eventually, however, says its president, Cal Conniff, the consciousness raising should lead to ''stricter enforcement'' of safe-skiing standards.

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