California pushes for new ski industry laws

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ALPINE MEADOWS, California (AP) — On a ridge near the 8,600-foot (2,600-meter) summit of Alpine Meadows ski resort, 17-year-old snowboarder Lucas Fuller scopes out the many chutes and bowls that radiate out from Ward Peak.

The teenager likes the resort because it has numerous ungroomed, expert-level slopes that approximate the back-country. For this run, he is looking for a route that will provide cliffs and bumps so he can catch some air. Despite warning signs at the base of the lift, Fuller is not wearing a helmet.

“I stopped wearing a helmet a long time ago, and it just feels better,” he says. “I’ve been riding for a long time, and I’m pretty confident.”

But if some California lawmakers have their way, the decision to wear a helmet will no longer be a personal choice.

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Two bills introduced by Democratic lawmakers from Northern California would require minors to wear a helmet while skiing or snowboarding. One of them also would extend to resort operations, requiring extensive injury reporting, sign posting and safety planning.

If the bills pass and are signed into law, they would give California the nation’s most restrictive helmet laws for skiers and snowboarders and the most stringent requirements for ski resorts.

Lawmakers in New York and New Jersey also are pushing mandates for ski helmets. One of six New York bills, and the only one to advance out of committee, would require skiers under 15 to wear a helmet. A New Jersey bill, if passed would require helmets for skiers and snowboarders under 14.

Quebec lawmakers considered requiring helmet use after actress Natasha Richardson died after a fall in 2009, but no legislation was introduced.

Even without legislative action, the use of helmets has gained in popularity. A survey by the National Ski Areas Association found that 48 percent of all skiers and snowboarders wore helmets during the 2007-08 season.

One of the California bills, by Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, would require all skiers and snowboarders under age 18 to wear helmets. It would place the enforcement burden on parents, who would face a fine of up to $25 if their children didn’t comply.

A bill by Democratic state Assemblyman Dave Jones of Sacramento is more far-reaching.

It has a similar helmet mandate for minors but would require ski resorts, not parents, to enforce it.

The Jones bill also would force all California ski resorts to report every injury and fatality on the slopes, coordinate with other resorts to adopt standardized safety signs and equipment, prepare annual safety plans and make all that information available to the public.

Such requirements are “extreme and unnecessary,” said Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association.

“Not only are no other resorts in other ski states subject to these kind of requirements, no other recreational activity is subject to this kind of record-keeping,” she said.

Link said her group, which is based in Colorado, would support the Senate bill dealing solely with helmets if it’s made clear that the resorts don’t have to enforce it.

Blaise Carrig, co-president of the mountain division for Colorado-based Vail Resorts, agreed.

“If you’re going to have legislation, at least have it be the right legislation,” he said.

In 2005, the British Medical Journal reported that wearing a helmet reduced the risk of head injuries among skiers and snowboarders by 29 percent.

All the head trauma cases from Lake Tahoe-area resorts are sent to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno. On average, the hospital admits one head injury patient from the slopes a day during ski season.

Dr. John Swanson, an emergency physician at the hospital, said that without helmets, “Their brain suffers more trauma, and they are more likely to have slower recovery time and permanent brain damage.”

Despite evidence that wearing helmets reduces the risk of severe injury, Jones said many children and teenagers will not ask for them on their own. He said it was not easy persuading his own children to wear helmets.

“I think for many parents who have the fight with their kids, which some of us have had, it’s actually not a bad thing to be able to say, ‘Look, you know what? Not only is this the right thing to do and not only would I insist that you do it, but it’s also a legal requirement,'” he said.

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Associated Press Writer Amy Luft in Montreal contributed to this report.

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