Mother says helmets should be mandatory | AspenTimes.com

Mother says helmets should be mandatory

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The 5-year-old girl killed at Aspen Highlands last weekend was taking part in an Aspen Skiing Co. ski-school class and was not wearing a helmet when she hit a tree.

At least one local mother of small children is calling for a mandatory helmet rule for youngsters on the slopes.

“It’s absolutely gut-wrenching. I have 4- and 5-year-old sons, and I’ve faxed Gov. Owens about this, I was so distraught,” said Basalt resident Carol Hawk. “It’s so crazy that when the kids go to ski school, everyone has got a helmet on. But this poor child came out from Florida, and who knew if her parents knew [to outfit her with a helmet]?”

Leonie Arguetty of West Palm Beach, Fla., was pronounced dead around 9:30 a.m. Monday after being airlifted to The Children’s Hospital in Denver. She had suffered severe head and chest injuries after hitting a tree along Golden Barrel, an intermediate run on Saturday afternoon.

The cause of death, said Scott Thompson of the Pitkin County Coroner’s Office, was a traumatic brain injury.

“I think kids should be required to wear helmets. Adults can make their own decisions,” said Hawk, who also wrote local media (see Letters on page 9). “But 16 to 18 states require helmets be used for bike riders. For these kids cruising down the hill at 35 mph, they should require helmets.”

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Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said the Skico relies on the National Ski Area Association in Denver for safety suggestions, since the association stays updated on the latest medical and safety studies.

“We’re looking to make our mountains the safest possible,” Hanle said. “NSAA has the rundown, and they’re who we rely on for ski and snowboard safety.”

Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, said helmets are always recommended, but are a parental decision when it comes to young children.

“As an organization we encourage the use of helmets, and I think if you ask anyone in the industry if they support helmet use, they’d say absolutely,” Berry said. “This is more complicated when you are talking about a 5-year-old, but the reality is that those are rare occurrences, and as shocking as they are, they don’t happen very often. There is never a great explanation as to why these tragedies happen, but for the vast majority of us on the hill, the issues are controlling your speed and your direction.”

Susan Blakney, program director at the Aspen Valley Ski/Snowboard Club, said helmets are not required at the club’s recreational Saturday and Sunday lessons, but “almost every child wears one.” And the professional coaches could make helmet-wearing a class rule, she said.

“Helmets are a personal choice,” Blakney said. “There are times when a helmet is really helpful, but [if] you really hit a tree hard, or there is an injury to your neck and spinal cord, a helmet might not help.”

The ski club does require helmet use during specific ski races as per the United States Ski Association. Racers must don headgear during the giant slalom, the super G, and downhill races. The club recommends helmets for slalom and “highly recommends” helmets for free skiing, said Gabriel Tattenham of the ski club.

Berry said skiers and boarders are generally well versed in the sport’s element of risk, due to a visible educational program that includes the skiing-responsibility code and other efforts to educate children and adults in ski schools.

“No other sport has done as much as we have in the education arena, and yet, in spite of our efforts these things do happen,” Berry said.

In Colorado this ski season, 11 people have been killed from skiing-related accidents. Four of those occurred in the past month at Aspen Highlands.

The incidents may have taken an emotional toll on the resort’s staff. Mac Smith, patrol director at Aspen Highlands, said ski patrollers have been offered debriefing sessions with counselors.

“I think [counseling] does help the patrollers go through these kinds of incidents,” Smith said. “We don’t have any procedural changes. The instances have been unique in themselves, and we’re out there doing the things we can do to affect the public’s safety, and we do that every day.”

Both he and Hanle said they don’t think anything specific will change as a result of the recent deaths.

“Certainly everyone is disheartened and sad about all these things, but there is no common link between the accidents,” Hanle said, “and nothing that leads us to change any operating procedures. It’s a very unfortunate and tragic incident.”

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