Record Number of Deaths on Ski Slopes

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
April 8, 2002

Now that the Winter Olympics are over, we can think back to the many records that were set in the snow. As the weather warms and the snow begins to melt, Colorado ski resorts have another record to report -- but this one is not a cause for celebration:

In Colorado alone, a record number of people died on the slopes this year: 14 skiers and 1 snowboarder. There is no obvious pattern to these deaths. Eight of the people were male and seven were female. Their ages ranged from 5 to 67 years. Some people were on difficult runs, others were on moderate slopes or easier trails. Only one person was wearing a ski helmet!

According to the National Ski Areas Association, approximately 25-50 people die each year at ski resorts in the United States. Over the last 17 years, the number of deaths has fluctuated dramatically for no apparent reason. Last year, 47 people died nationwide.

In response to these statistics, several Colorado ski resorts have established new ski helmet requirements. For example, next year children under the age of 12 years will need to wear helmets during ski lessons at Aspen Highlands and Vail Resorts. Most industry experts say other resorts will do the same. Financial incentives are being added, too: many ski areas will reduce the price of the lift tickets for people wearing helmets. At this time, no major resort in the US requires adults to wear ski helmets. Ski resorts are also stressing personal responsibility and knowledge of the rules of conduct while on the slopes. Ski patrols are being more vigilant about stopping skiers or snowboarders who are going too fast or who are not heeding the rules of right-of-way.

Head injuries are involved in the majority of skiing deaths. Although helmets are an obvious means of protecting the head, studies have shown that helmets work best when skiers are traveling under 12 miles per hour. Most people on the slopes who have fatal crashes are going faster than 12 miles per hour and crashing into trees accounts for 60% of the fatalities. Ski safety was propelled into the public spotlight after two public figures died from injuries sustained from skiing into trees. Michael Kennedy, whose uncle was President John F. Kennedy, died December 31, 1997 in Colorado. Only a few days later, entertainer-turned-Congressman Sonny Bono died from similar injuries in California.

Adults are more resistant than children to adding helmets to their ski equipment list, even when they insist that their children wear ski helmets. This may be because adults did not grow up with bicycle helmets, which are now a common sight now on children.

Skiing can be very safe and fun -- however, it is always a good idea to wear a helmet and familiarize yourself with the rules of conduct.

References and more information:

  1. "Record Colorado Ski Deaths Prompt Calls for Helmets" by Michael Janofsky, New York Times, March 31, 2002.

  2. "Do's, Don'ts and Don't-You-Dares" by Bill Pennington, New York Times, January 17, 2002.

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