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Poll: Want a helmet with those skis or snowboard? These days, most do [Updated]

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

More and more skiers and snowboarders are wearing helmets these days, and helmet requirements for minors taking lessons are on the rise at mountain resorts throughout the West. Do you have an opinion on helmets? Let us know by participating in a poll (at left) and adding your views to the comments section at the end of this post.

[Updated at 8:45 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 23. The poll results are in! Click here to find them.]

As the new ski season gets underway, here’s a look at the helmet debate and what to expect on the slopes:

Resort policies:

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In Park City, Utah, officials now require that if you’re younger than 18 and taking a class through the Ski & Snowboard School, you must wear a helmet.

Vail Resorts, Inc. -- which operates mountain resorts at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone in Colorado and Heavenly, near Lake Tahoe -- in 2009 began requiring all children 12 and under to wear helmets if they’re taking group ski or snowboard lessons. The company also said it would automatically include helmets in rental packages for children 12 and under unless parents sign a waiver to decline. And the company announced that it would require all employees to wear helmets when skiing or riding on the job.

Later that year, industry giant Intrawest (which runs Tremblant Resort in Quebec, Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Copper Mountain and Steamboat Ski Resort in Colorado and several other North American resorts), began recommending that all skiers and snowboarders at its resorts wear helmets. It also began mandating helmets for children and youth participants in Ski and Snowboard School programs and students in freestyle terrain park programs. With the current season, Intrawest is also requiring that employees wear helmets when leading those classes, and whenever skiing or snowboarding on duty in any freestyle terrain park.

At Utah’s Solitude resort, management leaves skiers and snowboarders to make their own headwear decisions.

At California’s Mammoth Mountain, helmets are required for children 12 and under who take ski and snowboard lessons. Rental helmets run $16 a day for adults, $10 for children.

In Southern California’s Big Bear area, the Snow Summit resort strongly recommends helmets for all who take ski and snowboard classes.

The legal picture:

California and New Jersey have been considering helmet mandates for skiers and snowboarders under 18. And the National Ski Areas Assn., an industry advocacy group, has said it supports such mandates, so long as the job of enforcing them is assigned to parents and local law-enforcement agencies, not to resort operators.

In fact, for much of this year, many in the resort industry thought California might become the first state to adopt a helmet law. But in late September, facing a linked pair of mountain-sport safety bills that would have done just that, Gov. Schwarzenegger blocked such a law.

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One bill, Senate Bill 880, would have mandated that skiers and snowboarders under age 18 wear helmets, with a $25 fine for failure to comply. The other, Assembly Bill 1652, would have required ski resorts to post safety signs and publicly disclose information on injuries and deaths. But because of the way the laws were written, neither could become law unless the governor backed both.

The governor signed Senate Bill 880, which was co-written by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). But he declined to sign Assembly Bill 1652, which was co-written by Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento). Schwarzenegger’s reason: “This bill may place an unnecessary burden on resorts, without assurance of a significant reduction in ski and snowboard-related injuries and fatalities.”

The upshot was that both measures remain on the shelf. Yee, who is also a child psychologist, has vowed to reintroduce his bill as a stand-alone measure next year. In the meantime, Yee said in a news release, “California’s ski slopes are perhaps the last area of recreation where we do not have basic safety standards in place for children.”

In New Jersey, the Senate in August approved a measure mandating helmets for skiers and boarders under age 18 and setting a $25 fine for non-compliant families. The next step for the legislation, which was sponsored by Sens. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) and Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris and Passaic), is in the state Assembly. Because of a delay built into the law, it wouldn’t take effect until after the 2010-2011 winter season.

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“If it doesn’t pass this session, it will probably pass next year,” said Geraldine Link, public policy director for the National Ski Areas Assn.

The numbers:

By the ski organization’s count, 38 people died in skiing and snowboarding accidents in the U.S. in 2009-2010, in the course of 59.8 million skier/boarder days of activity. Of those deaths, 19 involved people who were not wearing helmets at the time of injury. Perhaps the best-known recent skiing fatality in North America came in 2009, when actress Natasha Richardson fell at Canada’s Mont Tremblant in Quebec while not wearing a helmet. Though her injury seemed minor at first, she died of complications from a head injury.

The federal Consumer Products Safety Commission in this study found that for skiing and snowboarding children in the U.S. under age 15, “53 percent of head injuries (approximately 2,600 of the 4,950 head injuries annually) are addressable by use of a helmet.”

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To a large degree, skiers and boarders have made up their minds about helmets. Surveys by the National Ski Areas Assn. found that 57% of skiers and snowboarders, both adults and children, were voluntarily wearing helmets in 2009-2010. That’s up from 48% the year before and just 25% in 2002-2003. Even among the group least likely to wear a helmet – those ages 18 to 25 -- 43% wore helmets.

The issues:

Still, some see helmet mandates as an erosion of civil liberties and individual responsibility. And a helmet is one more expense. Helmets typically cost around $150 to buy or $7 to $16 per day to rent.

And so, as the winter of 2010-2011 arrives, skiers and snowboarders – especially those under 18 -- have a tricky landscape to navigate. Depending on where you’re headed, you may find a helmet is a mandatory part of the instructional program, or a recommendation for every minor on the mountain, or both, or none of the above.


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