How Safe is Skiing?

Myths and Half-Truths Cloud the Public Perception About
Snowboarding, Safety and Fatalities on the Slopes

Are the following statements true or false?

  • Snowboarders are more likely to become injured and to cause injuries than

  • If Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy had been wearing helmets, they would be
    alive today.

  • Deaths on the slopes have been steadily increasing.

If you answered false to all three, you’re right; unfortunately, you’re probably
in the minority. Those are just a few of the misperceptions about skiing and
snowboarding safety that the press has helped sell to the public. That was the
message at “Safety in the Ski Industry: Thrills vs. Risk Management,” a seminar
sponsored by The Snow Industry Letter (TSIL) at the pre-season meeting of the
Eastern Ski Writers Association (ESWA) at Wachusett Mountain, Mass., on Aug.


Keynote speakers Carl Ettlinger and Dr. Jasper Shealy debunked some of the
myths–which have been perpetuated by the press and not necessarily dispelled
by the industry–about injury and death rates in skiing and snowboarding before
an audience of 70 journalists and industry executives.

Safety: Snowboarding vs. Skiing

Snowboarders have a 40 percent lower death rate than alpine skiers, and are
more likely to be hit by out-of-control skiers than the other way around, Shealy,
chairman of the department of industrial engineering at Rochester Institute
of Technology, told the group. Part of the reason is that skiers slide when
they fall and are three to four times more likely to hit something, whereas
a snowboard acts as “a sea anchor,” preventing sliding, when the rider falls.
Death usually results from hitting something, he said.

A helmet will not protect someone who is moving at more than about 12 mph to
15 mph, Shealy said. Those most at risk of death are better-than-average adult
males who are usually traveling at somewhere between 25 mph to 40 mph. And despite
the high-profile deaths of Bono and Kennedy and the resulting publicity, there
has been “no statistically significant difference” in the rate of fatalities
in recent years, Shealy said. At 0.5 to one death per million skier visits (lower
for snowboarders), people are two to four times more likely to die in an automobile
or on an airplane, he said.

Helmet Use: No Safety Panacea

Helmets have become a hot-button issue in the ski industry with the introduction
in the New Jersey legislature of a bill that would make helmets mandatory for
children 14 and under, and would require ski areas to provide those helmets.
Shealy said they have been accused of being anti-helmet, but that isn’t the

Shealy did point out some of the fallacies about helmets, though. The number
of head injuries is relatively small–about 3,600 nationally a year–and most
of those are mild concussions, Shealy said. Of the 33 or 39 deaths last year
(depending on how you count), six were wearing helmets.

Ettlinger, president of Vermont Safety Research and adjunct professor at the
University of Vermont Medical College, noted that this is partly a behavior
issue, and compared it to driving a car with anti-lock brakes or a hockey player
wearing heavy padding. In both cases, more injuries have resulted from people
feeling they are indestructible.

“A helmet is not a panacea; it’s not a magic bullet,” he said. Wearing a helmet,
like the hockey player’s padding and the anti-lock brakes, can lead to “the
law of unintended consequences.” One needs to ask the question: “Would I be
doing this if I weren’t wearing a helmet?” Shealy pointed out.

Good News/Bad News Injury Trends

Along with Dr. Robert Johnson of the University of Vermont, Ettlinger and Shealy
have been studying injuries at the Sugarbush Ski Resort, Vt., over the past
28 years. Ettlinger noted that while lower leg injuries have been reduced by
half over the past 15 years, there has been a dramatic rise in the rate of knee
injuries, primarily of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). However, contrary
to press analysis, these trends are unrelated, he cautioned.

The rise in ACL sprains “is the greatest problem by far facing the ski industry,”
Ettlinger said. According to their research, those suffering the injury:

  • skied more years;
  • ski fewer days per year;
  • are more likely to be female
  • are older;
  • and fall less often.

In the years between 1973 and 1975, ACL injuries constituted 3.5 percent of
all injuries; by 1997-99, that number was up to 19.3 percent. In 1972, 22.4
percent of all knee sprains were severe; in 1998, 67.1 percent were categorized
as severe. But there has been little change in the rate of ACL injuries in the
past six years, the study noted.

Some other results of their studies include:

  • Approximately 11 million skiers and four million snowboarders in the U.S.
    participate at least once a year.

  • The yearly average is about 50 million to 55 million skier visits.
  • There are about 2.5 medically significant injuries per 1,000 skier visits.
  • This is equivalent to one injury every 430 days of skiing or snowboarding
    (about 50 years of skiing or snowboarding for most participants).

  • Almost half of all injuries are sprains, mostly minor.
  • The overall injury rate in alpine sports has declined by 50 percent over
    the past 25 years.

The good news about knee sprains, Ettlinger said, is that a program he, Shealy
and Johnson have put together has proven to reduce the incidence of these injuries.
ACL injuries to ski patrol personnel participating in the program are down 75
percent, he said.

NSAA President Michael Berry said that while a Wall Street Journal article
last winter made it seem that ski and snowboard related fatalities are on the
rise, the reality is that they have remained fairly constant for a number of
years. There were 26 the year Bono and Kennedy died; the historic average is
about 35 deaths annually. The WSJ article also had some seriously flawed statistics,
he noted, which were the result of errors in basic math. “I trust they have
Fidelity Mutual Funds right,” he joked.

Managing a Risk Sport

An inherent part of skiing and snowboarding’s appeal is that they are risk
sports, Berry said. The job of the industry and the press is to make people
aware of the risks, and aware of their own responsibilities. He pointed to the
Skier Responsibility Code and noted that the complaints ski areas get today
are coming from the same people they were trying to slow down 20 years ago.
There is “an influx of kids” into alpine sports–many of them snowboarders–which
has created “conflicting users,” Berry said.

To address the issue, NSAA–along with National Ski Patrol and Professional
Ski Instructors of America–is promoting a new campaign called National Safety
Initiative 2000. The idea is to communicate a proactive safety message and motivate
ski area operators to examine their area’s safety education effort and improve

Ettlinger agrees with a proactive approach. “The risk ought to be within our
own hands. If it’s random, then people need to be warned about those–for example,
falling out of a roller coaster,” he said, referring to several recent deaths.

The press looks for sensationalism, he said, but his real issue is with the
industry itself. He said those in snowsports have a tendency to be underinformed
on sensitive issues. “Those wearing the risk management hat are too often today
acting more like claims managers–less proactive and more reactive,” he said
in a statement released at the seminar. The effect is the “dumbing down” of
an organization’s internal watchdogs, he said.

“In most cases, the industry doesn’t put its best foot forward,” Ettlinger
said in a telephone interview following the seminar. “I don’t know a risk manager
for a ski area who knows what injury rates used to be or what they are today.
There’s no historical perspective. They have even less knowledge of where their
company or institution performs in those areas. Worst of all, they don’t want
to know.”

New Equipment Creates New Problems

Ettlinger said that two areas where this has become very clear are shaped skis
and skiboards (short skis with twin tails and non-releasable bindings). He claimed
that the industry got behind the curve on shaped skis, and instead of using
them as an opportunity, the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) said
no special training was necessary.

The studies that Ettlinger, Shealy and Johnson have done show that shaped skis
may increase the risk of one type of knee injury among advanced skiers and may
increase the risk of ankle fracture among beginners. However, those skiers who
are trained in shaped ski technique have no more injuries than other skiers.

Skiboards are another story. Ettlinger said that equipment companies jumped
on the skiboard bandwagon to increase their bottom line, without studying what
the potential downside might be. “No one expected (skiboards) to go anyplace.
The suppliers didn’t want industry-wide discussions of standards for this product–a
product that is patently dangerous,” Ettlinger said. He noted that whether it
is suppliers, resorts or shops, the industry “is far less interested in being

From what Ettlinger’s group has seen so far, skiboarding appears to present
an increased risk of injury relative to alpine skiing, especially in terms of
lower leg injury.

Mandatory Helmet Legislation

TSIL Publisher Bob Gillen read an emotional letter from Dr. Norman San Agustine,
whose daughter died of head injuries following a ski accident in 1989 at Hidden
Valley ski area in New Jersey. Dr. San Agustine has been instrumental in launching
safety bills in the New Jersey legislature; last year a bill was proposed that
would require children under the age of 14 to wear helmets, and require ski
areas to provide them. Gillen also read remarks by Dr. Jill Brooks, an associate
professor of neurology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, who testified
before the New Jersey legislature.

In her testimony, Brooks’ cited a Consumer Products Safety Commission study
on the efficacy of helmet use. The problem with the study, Ettlinger pointed
out, was that it was based on 124 injuries over a period of two months, whereas
his studies have looked at more than 16,000 injuries over nearly 30 years. Mandatory
helmet use would cost the industry between $50 million and $100 million to maintain,
Shealy said.

Marc Hauser, president of MPH Associates, agrees that helmet use should be
a choice, but noted that one thing that was not talked about much at the seminar
was anecdotal evidence regarding the efficacy of helmets. His company has been
importing Boeri helmets from Italy since 1989.

Hauser described the evolution from knit headwear to helmets, comparing it
to the shift from safety straps to today’s ski brake devices. The technology
in both cases has improved, and consumers have created the demand for helmets
because they realize the benefits of wearing them. While one of the benefits
for wearing a helmet is a measure of protection, Hauser emphasized performance.

Helmets are impervious to weather, Hauser said, and since skiing and snowboarding
are activities done in less than ideal weather–often cold, wet and windy–helmets
are a much better choice. In newer models, venting is “all but required,” and
a lot of design attention has been paid to enhance hearing, Hauser said. He
also stressed that peripheral vision is an issue with goggles, not helmets.

Because a helmet gives users “an encapsulated feeling,” they can focus more
on the sport, he added. That, and the feeling of confidence from having the
proper equipment, can improve performance. In addition, he said, all Boeri helmets
meet CE standards, which have been proven to reduce the incidence of minor concussions–the
most common form of head injury.

Safety Off the Marked Trails

Ski areas have handled safety issues in widely divergent ways. Jay Peak embraced
tree skiers years ago, cutting glades and inviting their customers to partake.
Jay president and CEO William Stenger talked about Jay’s policy and said the
resort has added 800 more acres of tree and glade skiing. He called glade skiing
“a return to the soul of the sport.” Jay Peak, close to the border with Quebec,
uses bilingual signage as a primary safety tool and said the injury rates for
off-piste skiers is negligible.

Stowe Mountain Resort has lots of off-piste skiing and riding but has never
condoned its use. Rod Kessler, director of mountain operations at Stowe, said
the area has no plans to open off-piste areas. It has implemented a new “Triple
A” policy–awareness, attitude, accountability–which, along with good communication,
are the essential safety message of the resort.

David Crowley, president of host Wachusett, talked about the challenges for
a small ski resort close to a major population center. “It’s like we’re in two
different businesses,” he said, referring to Stenger’s description of Jay Peak.
“If you ski in the woods at Wachusett, you go to jail.” He noted that Wachusett
hosts about 2,000 school children a day and questioned whether it would be able
to do so if a mandatory helmet law existed.

Responsibility Lies with the Individual

Carl Wrighton, a ski patroller and member of the Hazardous Terrain Team at
Stowe, said most of the injuries he has seen in about 20 years have been relatively
minor. He suggested that parents need to take a more active role in educating
their children about ski and snowboard safety and commended the Snow Monsters
video, created by Jack Turner and the Sirdar company from Durango, Colo., which
was shown during the seminar.

“The bulk of the responsibility should lie with the individual,” he said.

During the question and answer session of the seminar, one journalist noted
the difficulty in getting information from ski areas about where accidents occur,
which elicited a number of explanations–the main one, from NSAA’s Berry, being
the workings of the U.S. judicial system. Ettlinger also noted that his organization
had problems getting information from areas.

Another question related to whether people ski and snowboard for the thrills
or for recreation. The consensus seemed to be that was a factor primarily of
age and gender, with younger males constituting the largest thrill-seeking contingent.
Time Magazine’s cover article on risk-taking didn’t hit the radar screen until
the day after the conference, but Ettlinger, by phone, agreed that in an ever-safer
society, people look for thrills where they can find them. And skiing and snowboarding
are filling the risk bill for many.

The seminar was dedicated to the late I. William Berry, long-time publisher
of The Snow Industry Letter and former executive editor of SKI magazine.

Leave a Reply