Western slopes put their safe ski forward

To quell concerns about dangers, resorts make safety a more prominent priority.

Ski patrols have always been as ubiquitous on the slopes as ear muffs and neon body suits. But this year their presence will be more prevalent than ever at premier resorts - and they'll have a new mission: pulling over reckless skiers.

Call it NYPD Snow.

The crackdown is part of an unprecedented push for safety this year by the ski industry. With the recent high-profile deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy - and two fatalities already this season - the ski industry is taking steps to quell growing public concern about safety.

"We're trying to keep safety at the top of people's minds," says Stacy Gardner, spokeswoman for the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo.

The new campaign, called "Heads Up," coordinates with stepped-up enforcement efforts at ski areas nationwide, including:

At Vail, Colo., a safety-patrol squadron, outfitted in bright yellow jackets, will be on the prowl for skiers going too fast - who are liable to lose their lift tickets or season passes.

At Colorado's Winter Park, a "skier education team" will revoke lift passes from reckless skiers and snowboarders - but they will get a chance to reclaim their privileges the next day by attending "responsible skier" class. The team also will hand out free ski-lesson vouchers to those who are skiing out of control due to inexperience rather than intent.

At Utah's Park City Mountain Resort, safety patrollers will concentrate on high-traffic and slow-ski zones. Violators will get a warning before being kicked off the mountain. But those who can recite the Skier Responsibility Code, displayed prominently at resorts, qualify for a 50-percent discount on their next lift ticket.

The focus on safety comes at a time when the public perceives skiing as more hazardous than ever. From a common-sense perspective, strapping a pair of boards to one's feet to negotiate down a steep, slick surface, doesn't sound like the ideal way to ensure personal safety. But the fatality rate for skiing has remained stable for decades at less than 1 in a million per-skier visits; ditto for the overall accident rate.

"You're a lot safer on the mountain than you are driving in your car to the ski area," says Melissa O'Brien, communications manager for Park City ski resort.

Still, even as industry officials defend the sport's safety record, they acknowledge that guest complaints about the behavior of others on the mountain have risen in recent years. In fact, it is this perception of danger as much as any real hazards that resorts are anxious to address.

"We've gotten letters from guests who've said that a lot of people are skiing too fast through the slow-ski areas," says Ms. O'Brien. "That was enough to get us to start this program." And the discourteous behavior displayed by some skiers and snowboarders can undermine the sport's growth, she believes. "We have a lot of guests who are learning to ski, and when people invade their space, they get flustered. Obviously, we want first-time skiers to come back." Vail Resorts also opted to increase safety patrols this year in response to visitor complaints.

"It's a serious and legitimate concern for our guests," says spokesman Paul Witt. "If we're not addressing our guests' concerns, perception becomes reality. I think this is a great opportunity for ski areas to head off what could be a negative situation for us."

Most ski-accident victims are males in their late teens to late 20s who are better-than-average skiers, says Jasper Shealy, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York who studies ski injuries. And the majority of fatal accidents occur on the margins of intermediate trails.

During the 1998-1999 season, there were 39 deaths on US ski slopes. That compares with 26 ski deaths the previous year and an annual average of 34. The record of 49 deaths occurred in the 1994-1995 season.

At the same time, skier and snowboarder visits have remained relatively flat for a decade - and dipped slightly last year.

Certainly, the industry is not well-positioned to alienate customers. And to some degree, that has curbed on-the-slope enforcement measures at resorts until now. To many alpine enthusiasts, after all, speed and a sense of freedom make the sport appealing.

In deference to that fact, Oregon's Mt. Hood Meadows is aiming to strike a balance between education and enforcement. The ski area incorporates safety training into its ski school, and this year will station safety monitors in bright-colored vests in slow-speed zones. But those who want to ski fast will be given free rein to do so in certain areas.

"We're not saying, 'go crazy,' but if they're within their limits, that's an appropriate place to ski fast," says Dave Tragethon, Mt. Hood's marketing director. "Part of the joy of the sport is to be out there with your freedom. The thing we want to do is make people responsible for their own actions."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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