by David B. Cronheim
Trenton, NJ – While the snow has melted from most of the nation’s slopes, the ski season’s most significant development may have just occurred in, of all places, New Jersey. On April 6, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into law a bill which requires all children under the age of 18 to wear “securely fitted protective” helmets while skiing or snowboarding at any of the state’s three ski resorts.nThe law, which will take effect in time for the 2011-12 season, will supplement N.J.S.A. 5:13 (exact citation not yet available). It is the first of its kind in the nation and likely to become a model for future ski helmet laws.
In an important distinction from laws proposed in other states, New Jersey’s law delegates to “parent(s), legal guardian(s), or adult(s) acting in a supervising position” the duty to ensure that minors comply with the law. In other words, adults will pay the price if children under their care ski or snowboard without a helmet. The term “adult in a supervising position” is undefined, but is likely broad enough to include school, youth, or church group leaders. Additionally, parents who bring their children’s friends on ski trips to New Jersey ski resorts would seem to fall within the scope of “supervising adults.” Both sets of individuals should make sure that the children under their care have helmets and that the helmets are buckled.
A first offense carries a $25 fine, with a maximum penalty of $100 for subsequent offenses. Local law enforcement agencies, and not ski resort operators, will have sole enforcement responsibility. Resorts are expected to respond to the law by offering or increasing their helmet rentals.
The law enjoyed broad bipartisan support, passing the Assembly with a vote of 71-6 and the Senate by a 34-2 margin. Over the past few legislative sessions, similar bills had failed to reach the governor’s desk. Prior versions encountered stiff resistance largely because they would have fined ski resort operators rather than supervising adults and placed enforcement responsibility on ski resort operators rather than local police departments. Many legislators believed these two requirements to be unfair and unnecessary burdens to place on resort operators.
New Jersey’s new statute relieves resort operators of these responsibilities. Presumably in response to these concerns, the new law also included an express carveout, which unambiguously protects ski resort operators from liability in connection with the new law.
While helmets certainly do not prevent all head injuries, they have been shown to significantly reduce the severity of injury in low and medium speed crashes. Thus it is unsurprising that many states, including New Jersey, already have laws which require children to wear helmets while riding bicycles. But states have been slow to mandate ski helmet use for minors even though the risks are similar. A 2008-09 National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) study showed that 39 persons died while skiing or snowboarding in the United States out of 57.4 million skier days, a number which has remained fairly flat for the past ten years. Out of those 39 deaths, an overwhelming majority (31) were not wearing helmets.
Even without helmet laws, helmet usage is on the rise across the United States. According to a recent NSAA study, helmet use has increased dramatically throughout the last decade from 25% of skiers and boarders in 2002-2003 to 57% in 2009-10. In addition most race and freestyle programs already require participants to wear helmets and many resort operators, including New Jersey ski resort Mountain Creek’s former parent company – Intrawest – require ski school children to don a protective lid. However, no other states have formally adopted a law mandating helmet usage for minors.
Several states are currently considering legislation similar to New Jersey’s. In fact, California had an opportunity to become the first state to require children to wear ski helmets in September 2010, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a more expansive ski safety bill because it included signage and safety plan requirements he felt placed “an unnecessary burden on resorts, without assurance of (reduced deaths or injuries).” In March, Illinois saw a proposed ski helmet bill die in committee, leaving New York as the most likely candidate to become the second state requiring ski helmets for minors. New York’s bill has garnered bipartisan support and is being debated this week in the state Senate’s judiciary committee.
Officially, the NSAA supports ski helmet laws, provided that the responsibility for compliance falls to parents and duty to enforce rests with local police departments: precisely the approach New Jersey has adopted. Consequently, legislatures throughout the country who are anxious to secure industry support for helmet legislation will turn to New Jersey as a model. Not Colorado, Utah or Vermont, but New Jersey – who would have thought it?