Skier Safety at Issue After Celebrity Deaths

Accidents involving Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy stir talk of helmets, more patrols.

The Ski Patrol at the Santa Fe Ski Area in New Mexico relies on clearly posted rules and strict enforcement to keep skiing accidents to a minimum. If skiers are caught twice ignoring directional or speed signs, their lift tickets are revoked. They can get their tickets back only by watching a 12-minute ski-safety video and passing a quiz.

Safety measures like these may well become more common in the wake of the skiing deaths of Michael Kennedy and Rep. Sonny Bono of California. But these two high-profile accidents in the past week also belie the fact that the number of skiing injuries - especially broken legs - has dropped dramatically in the past 20 years.

"You're four times safer out on the slopes skiing than you are riding in a car or a plane," says Jasper Shealy, professor of industrial engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

In all, about 35 people die each year in skiing accidents in the United States (approximately 1 in 690,000 skiers), a number that has remained much the same for the past 20 years.

A majority of the fatalities are due to avalanches, but most of the others are the result of high-speed collisions with immovable objects such as trees. The vast majority of skiing fatalities occur among experienced male skiers trying to "push the envelope" in search of thrills - most often in powder-filled woods or on ridge lines far from established trails.

While there are some things ski resorts can do to lessen the danger - such as requiring safety helmets - safety experts agree that safety on the slopes is already very good.

By contrast, for bicyclists there were 7.1 deaths per million in 1995, notes Stacy Gardner of the National Ski Areas Association.

Skiiers must be in control

Ms. Gardner says much of the responsibility falls on the skiers themselves. The ski patrol cannot cover every inch mountain, she says.

"On everything from the back of a lift ticket to the signage on the slopes, there's a lot of education out there about safety. The bottom line is that this is just sort of an anomaly," adds Virginia Lucarelli, communications manager at Telluride resort in Colorado.

In fact, in the case of the Santa Fe resort, New Mexico's Safe Ski Act, passed in 1978, states: "It is recognized that skiing ... is inherently a dangerous sport. Therefore, each skier has the sole individual responsibility for knowing the range of his ability to negotiate any slope or trail, and it shall be the duty of each skier to ski within the limits of the skier's own ability, to maintain reasonable control of speed and course at all times while skiing."

"Skiers need to be smart," says Gardner "While Mr. Kennedy's death may have been tragic, she says, "[his] accident involved behavior which was not appropriate on the slopes. They were playing football, which isn't permitted."

More helmets on the slopes?

The death of Kennedy at Aspen on Dec. 31 and of Representative Bono at Heavenly Valley near Lake Tahoe, Calif., are raising new questions about whether crash helmets should be required at ski areas. Relatively few skiers wear protective gear now. Some ski areas don't even offer it in their rental shops, although more are beginning to do so. So far, there is no real groundswell to require helmets, but helmet use is on the rise. Recent tragedies may further that trend.

"You're definitely going to see more helmets," says Gardner. But she warns: "Helmets are a good idea, but they can give people a false sense of security; you need to stay in control. You can still get killed wearing a helmet."

One concern among safety experts is the rising popularity of snowboarding, a so-called "extreme sport" with a culture for risk-taking and ariel stunts.

The sport grew an astounding 32 percent in 1996, and snowboarding has begun to surpass skiing at some resorts. But experts say with a little extra effort and attention, the burgeoning snowboard population can be safely absorbed.

"The industry has had an outstanding record on educating skiers over the years," says Gardner. "There's no reason to believe we can't do the same for snowboarders. It's an ongoing effort."

* Jillian Lloyd contributed to this report from Boulder, Colo.

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