Mother wants Skico to make helmets mandatory for kids | AspenTimes.com

Mother wants Skico to make helmets mandatory for kids

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A local woman plans to keep the pressure on the Aspen Skiing Co. to create a mandatory helmet rule for the smallest skiers and boarders on the hill.

Basalt resident Carol Hawk, mother of two young children learning to ski, said since she “went public” last week with her call for a helmet rule for children, other parents have expressed interest in joining her cause. Hawk said she was motivated to lead the charge after a 5-year-old girl was killed at Aspen Highlands, having struck a tree.

Dr. Steve Ayers, an emergency-room physician who also serves as the Pitkin County coroner, said if the girl had been wearing a helmet, he is “90 percent sure” she would have survived the crash. The girl’s official cause of death was a traumatic brain injury.

The Skico does not have a mandatory rule for children to wear helmets, but recommends it. Dave Bellack, Skico’s senior vice president, points to the inside of a trail map for all four mountains when asked about the company’s policy on helmet use.

Under the section titled, “For all four mountains,” the map reads, “Helmets: Aspen Skiing Company recommends that children wear helmets. Helmets are available at most area rental shops.”

Hawk said she is concerned that vacationers need more education about the importance of helmets. The 5-year-old girl was from Florida.

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Lori Farmer, who visits Snowmass each year from Fayetteville, N.C., said her 9-year-old son, Ryan, also skied into a tree during his own ski-school class. The difference for Farmer was that her son was wearing a helmet.

“He broke his nose in the crash and had a concussion, but he also had a helmet on, so the outcome was completely different,” Farmer said. “He hit a tree head-on, and the helmet saved his life. He’s got two black eyes, but his nose will heal, he’s alive and we’re taking him home.”

Farmer said when she got to the hospital, she was told by a doctor that the helmet had done its job.

“Ryan was in a ski school class in Snowmass, and they were wonderful. His instructor was wonderful, and the people in the hospital were fantastic – even the ambulance driver. I can’t say enough great things about the care he got,” she said. “But later when we learned about the 5-year-old girl, we were horrified.”

Ayers, who helped treat Ryan Farmer, said in the past year he has probably seen 30 serious injuries that were prevented when the victim was wearing a helmet.

“Probably a couple of those people would have even died without a helmet,” he said. As for small children, Ayers said the youngest people on the mountain make up a substantial percentage of those crashes. “I can’t say statistically [kids] are more likely to hit a tree or the ground hard than anyone else, because no one is immune. We see so many concussions each year it’s unbelievable – hundreds of them.”

Ayers said he thinks one other death at Highlands could have been prevented with the use of a helmet this winter: that of a young German woman who died after a serious fall in the Steeplechase area.

“I am 98 percent sure she would have survived with a helmet on,” he said.

The Skico gets much of its information on helmet use from the National Ski Areas Association, which considers helmet use the “second line of defense” to skiing responsibly, said association president Michael Berry. Bellack added that the Skico posts many safety tips at its ski areas.

“Ski safety and snowboarding safety is a big part of what we do, and we emphasize that in all levels of ski school,” he said. “We educate people with signs on lift towers, on trail maps, lap maps and on napkins in our restaurants, messages on Channel 16 and banners on the hill.”

Bellack said he doesn’t see a mandatory helmet rule being added to the Skico’s policy on the “short-term horizon,” noting NSAA’s findings that helmets may only prevent accidents at over 12 mph. But a study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1999 indicated that 44 percent of skiing and snowboarding accidents could be addressed with helmet use.

Ayers said based on scientific evidence, and with the ski industry starting to face safety questions and perhaps lawsuits, his “gut-feeling” is that in five to 10 years, helmets will be required on the slopes.

“It’s hard to say, but my feeling is that society will push for more safety, like the use of seat belts – that used to be a big argument, and now it’s a law in every state,” he said. “Now that a 5-year-old has gotten killed, I think some people would rather inhibit their freedom a little than see one other person or child killed.”

But James Chalat, a Denver-based attorney who specializes in ski-related litigation, said there is probably no way to make helmet use mandatory.

“There is no litigation that’s going to cause the Colorado general assembly to enact a rule that says ‘Thou shalt put your children in helmets.’ The state just doesn’t typically regulate that sort of use,” he said. “It’s certainly a smart thing to do, and it’s apparent to me that a lot of kids are wearing helmets, since they have many more vulnerabilities than adults like getting hit by someone else, or having a wreck loading or unloading the lift.”

Hawk said she is working to bring a chapter of the national SAFE KIDS program to the Roaring Fork Valley. It would bring discounted ski helmets at $35 through Bell Sports to this area. She is also working with Aspen Police Officer Brad Onsgard to research how to get a helmet ordinance for children passed, much like the one passed last spring for Aspen’s skateboard park.

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