Legislation across country considers mandating helmet use for snowsports

Legislative proposals to mandate ski and snowboard helmet use are popping up from coast to coast. Is this an anomaly...or the future of snowsports? SNEWS looks at the issue.
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When California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger terminated a proposed mandatory helmet law for young skiers and snowboarders in the Golden State, he did so in a way that actually supported the bill, and left many wondering if such laws may be an inevitable aspect of the snowsports business.

“While I am signing this (helmet) bill to demonstrate my support for this measure, I recognize that it will not take effect," Schwarzenegger said in a written statement regarding Senate Bill 880.

That’s because in order to pass the law, Schwarzenegger would have had to also approve a separate bill stipulating new guidelines for resort signage and safety plans. Apparently, that reached a level that the “Governator” would not approve.

A similar bill is still pending in New Jersey. And in New York State, proposed mandatory ski helmet laws have become as much an annual rite as the first snow. The latest, introduced in March by Felix Ortiz, a Brooklyn assemblyman who has never skied, proposed to make helmets mandatory for everybody, with $500 fines for the helmet-less skier and $1,500 for the ski area itself.

So while California kids must currently wear helmets whenever skateboarding or riding a bicycle, but not while sliding down a snowy hill, there is the sense that times are about to change.

“Schwarzenegger did sign the bill,” said Dave Byrd, director of education and risk for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), in Lakewood, Colo. “And from everything that we’re hearing about the mandate in New Jersey, it’s almost certain that the governor there will sign that.”

The NSAA supports helmet use for every skier and snowboarder. “That’s our official position,” said Byrd. But if New Jersey does pass the law, it will be the first mandate for ski helmet laws in the United States.

“We think it’s a second line of defense,” said Byrd. “Helmets provide an obvious level of protection, but it’s far, far more important to ski and snowboard safely, within the guidelines of the existing (Skier) Responsibility Code.”

NSAA advises members that if helmet laws are proposed in their home state, then work to have them reflect existing bicycle helmet laws -- particularly in regard to minors.

The irony is that anyone would deem it necessary to mandate a practice that skiers and snowboarders themselves have been so quick to embrace. In the past 10 years, from a time when the only helmets on the hill were on downhill racers, NSAA research has found that overall helmet usage has jumped to 57 percent of the entire population on the slopes.

A further breakout reveals that 87 percent of children, up to 9 years old, and 75 percent between the ages of 10 to 14 are already wearing helmets. In an economically flat ski and snowboard market, helmet sales have been one of the few continuing bright spots.

“We saw sales increase between 30 percent and 40 percent from preseason orders in ‘09 to 2010,” said Billy Treacy, director of sales for Giro Snow, a division of Giro Sport Design. “That’s not all necessarily tied to increased awareness of helmet use because retailers ordered so carefully in last year’s economy. But increased awareness is certainly having an impact.”

Treacy said Giro, which is owned by Easton Bell, a company with deep ties to the motorsports and cycling markets, “really stays on the sidelines regarding legislation.” While acknowledging that any successful legislation would most likely provide a short-term sales boost, he said he thinks the long-term reality of enforcement would provide less positive results.

“The sheer manpower involved in enforcement is really the key stumbling block,” Treacy said. “Ski areas do not want the burden of enforcement, so who’s going to do it? The difference between passing the law and actually enforcing it leaves a pretty big gap.”

In the end, it may very well be the threat of liability that establishes the parameters for helmet use. Especially as more brand name ski areas like Vail and Aspen dictate new helmet rules for both their employees, and the younger customers in their ski and snowboard classes.

“It’s not like everybody in this industry uses completely different insurance companies,” said Jarka Duba, president and CEO of POC USA, a Swedish helmet company that has quickly established itself in the racing and big mountain camps. “There is a culture here that keeps reinforcing itself with increasing helmet use.”

While Duba said he believes America is a country where, “you do whatever you want,” every week he receives some kind of positive reminder of the benefits of helmet use.

“I get a lot of photographs of people standing with their doctor and saying about their helmet, ‘I wouldn’t be here without it,’” Duba said. “I equate it to wearing a seatbelt. If you’re in a minor crash, or a major one, you’re always better off if you wear it.”

--Peter Kray

On Oct. 6, 2010, veteran journalist Peter Kray joined the SNEWS team and is now editor of the new SNEWS WinterSports channel. We trust you are enjoying the full offering of WinterSports news. Be sure to email your friends and let them know the best WinterSports news has arrived -- just in time for the start of the winter season. Got WinterSports news? Send your WinterSports news to Kray at pkray@snewsnet.com. Subscribers can also post WinterSports news releases directly to the SNEWS website. Email us at snewsbox@snewsnet.com to learn about posting your own news releases, or for any other questions or comments. We love to hear from our readers!

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