Concluding that reckless skiing is tantamount to reckless driving, a Colorado prosecutor is pressing felony charges against two out-of-control skiers who collided with children in separate accidents that left an 11-year-old Iowa girl dead and an 8-year-old San Diego boy seriously injured.
The charges are believed to be among the first of their kind, but “I suspect they won’t be the last,” said Dist. Atty. Gregory Long, who filed them this week in Grand County.
“I don’t see any difference between this and being hit by a car on a sidewalk or in a school parking lot,” Long said. “You don’t get magical exemption from responsibility because you’re on a set of skis.”
Believes in Licensing
Concerns about reckless skiing were echoed at resorts around the nation Wednesday, and one expert doing a study for Mammoth Mountain said his research has convinced him that skiers should be licensed.
Charged in Colorado Tuesday were Howard Hidle, 31, of North Richland Hills, Tex., and Terrence Coghlan, 38, of Steamboat Springs, Colo. Both could face stiff prison terms if convicted. Neither could be reached for comment Wednesday.
Hidle is accused of manslaughter in the Feb. 17 death of Kari Meylor, a Sioux City, Iowa, girl who died of head injuries after being struck at the base of a practice hill at the Winter Park resort.
Coghlan is charged with second-degree assault, child abuse and reckless endangerment in an incident a week later at Steamboat Springs, where Russell Wittman was seriously injured while vacationing with his family.
Long said both defendants skied past signs and barriers. “The witnesses felt their conduct was beyond mere negligence or mistakes,” Long said. Hidle and Coghlan both escaped serious injury, he added.
Calls for Stiffer Laws
Steve Wittman, a San Diego attorney, has been pushing for tougher laws on the slopes since the Feb. 24 accident that left his son with a shattered leg.
Reckless skiers are not held accountable in part because it is not mandatory to report accidents on the slopes, Wittman believes. He has written Colorado legislators and ski industry officials to urge such legislation.
“Ski resorts naturally want everyone to think it’s a glowing, beautiful day on the slopes,” Wittman said. “The hope is that everyone will lick their wounds, go away from the ski resort and not get involved in any litigation.”
He said Coghlan “appeared out of nowhere” and flew 40 feet through the air before hitting Russell Wittman at a speed later estimated at 50 m.p.h.
Coghlan sent a friend back up the slope to retrieve his ski, which Steve Wittman was clutching. When he confronted the frantic father, Coghlan “was smiling” and “denied ever seeing Russell,” Wittman recalled, adding that Coghlan never apologized. Russell may eventually need surgery to repair his leg.
At Winter Park, resort spokeswoman Paula Sheridan applauded the criminal charges in the Meylor death.
“We have to get word out that reckless skiing just will not be tolerated, and this is ultimately what can happen,” she said.
Several ski resorts said that they have extensive skier education programs and patrols to combat recklessness and that the slopes are actually safer than ever.
The National Ski Areas Assn., a Springfield, Mass., trade organization representing the nation’s 600 ski resorts, reported a 300% decline in the number of injuries over the last 38 years.
Spokeswoman Lynn Murphy said there are currently about 2 1/2 injuries per 1,000 skiers, and one fatality per 2 million. About 54 million lift tickets are sold around the country each year, she said.
“We would support the concept of prosecuting reckless skiers where proper laws apply,” Murphy said.
Concern over reckless skiers prompted Mammoth Mountain to commission a study profiling the offenders.
Frank Tikalsky, a psychology professor and insurance industry consultant from Dillon, Mont., and his wife, former Olympic skier Linda Meyers, have interviewed more than 500 people and reviewed more than 2,500 accident reports from Mammoth so far and expect to submit their report next month.
Focus Is on Men
They found that most reckless skiers are men between 18 and 26 who have been skiing about three years and have accidents while skiing in groups.
Tikalsky, a skier himself, favors tough measures to combat the problem.
“I think you should have to have a license to ski,” he said, adding that mandatory ski schools would also help. Criminal charges would also be a deterrent, he said.
“I don’t think you have to do it too many times for the community to get the message.”
But resorts “are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Jim Mitchell, who manages Crystal Mountain Resort, about 75 miles east of Seattle.
“Basically, we have a sport here for people who are looking for something different, fast, exciting, the wind in your hair . . . and, as we all know, mountains have inherent dangers,” he said.
“But at the same time we’re inviting them, we’re slapping rules and regulations on a large element of the population that’s affecting a small element of the population, and taking some of the fun out of it,” he said.
Crystal Mountain tries to reward caution by giving away daily passes to 15- to 25-year-olds “who we feel are exhibiting the right kinds of behavior,” he said.
At Killington, Vt., the largest ski resort in the East, spokeswoman Laura Wittern agreed that criminal “charges might make people stop and think twice.”
Researcher Lisa Romaine also contributed to this story.