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Playing Politics With Children’s Safety: The Ski Helmet Story
 by Stephen D. Landfield
This is a story about politics and ski helmets. It’s one that needs to be told before the spring thaw dries up the mountain slopes for yet another year. True, it’s not about war, terrorism or any of the other glaring front page issues we can’t seem to escape these days. But it is an important story, as it concerns the safety of our children and the way certain special interests are keeping a good piece of common sense legislation from becoming law while exposing our children to an unnecessary risk of injury or death.

Some statistics to make my point: According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), in 1997, there were about 84,200 skiing injuries, of which 17,500 were head injuries which required treatment in hospital emergency rooms. The CPSC, which studies such things, concluded that 7,700 of these head injuries and about 11 skiing deaths per year could have been prevented or reduced in severity if skiers or snowboarders would simply wear helmets. So, by simply taking that hat off and replacing it with a helmet, there would be a 44% reduction in head injuries. This is consistent with a Swedish study showing that skiers who wore helmets were 50% less likely to sustain a head injury.

Further research reveals that those who are younger than 17 or older than 65 are at greatest risk of sustaining serious head injuries. We all recall the well-known tragic cases like Sonny Bono, or perhaps the lesser known ones like Nikki San Augustin, who tragically died on the slopes here in New Jersey. Our own U.S. Senator, Frank Lautenberg, just underwent brain surgery as a result of a skiing collision. It’s pretty obvious. A simple safety measure saves lives and helps prevent serious injuries.

Why then, you may ask, aren’t ski helmets mandatory equipment for children who are so susceptible to such head injuries while skiing? Even more curious is the question why there isn’t a single state in the Union which requires such a simple, common-sense safety measure?

New Jersey State Assemblymen Joe Pennacchio and Alex DeCroce also asked this question and have introduced legislation mandating helmet use by all children under age 14. Their bill puts the burden of enforcing this safety measure on ski areas which would be required to make helmets available, and which permits them to charge a rental fee. It also establishes a $100 fine against the ski operator for every violation if the ski operator fails to issue a helmet to a child under age 14. New York and Colorado have also introduced legislation requiring ski helmet use by children.

Unfortunately, this sensible bill sits awaiting a hearing, with little prospect of ever getting posted for a vote. Why? Opposition by the powerful ski resort industry, which has determined that its profitability is more important than your children’s safety. Although almost unanimously approved twice by the State Senate, the ski industry and its lobbyists have managed to keep such legislation from ever getting out of the State Assembly Committee. This has been the case since 1988 when such legislation was first proposed here in New Jersey.

Ski resort operators—joined by ultra-conservatives—opposed the bill year after year, arguing against a legislative mandate, preferring to make it a matter of “personal choice” instead. It’s the old New Hampshire “Live Free or Die” motto as applied to skiing. Interestingly, Pennacchio and DeCroce are both Assemblymen who I know personally and who I would never mistake for liberals. To the contrary, these conservative Republican legislators are just trying to protect our state’s children from sustaining preventable head injuries when they engage in a high speed potentially dangerous sport through a simple, common sense, and statistically proven safety measure. Fighting along side them all these years has been Dr. Norman San Augustin—whose daughter, Nikki, died so many years ago on the New Jersey slopes—and who has been a perennial fighter to make sure that her death was not in vain.

Common sense alone makes Swiss cheese of the objections of ski resort owners. While it might increase operating costs to have to supply helmets to children, the costs can be passed along to skiers. Further, a measure which is statistically proven to reduce injuries and fatalities has got to positively impact the owner’s bottom line—less injuries mean fewer potential lawsuits, lower insurance costs and a better public image for the product they are selling…skiing.

As for those who object to one more government mandate, just look up the figures on how many lives have been saved by seat belts, which were also opposed by right-wing zealots.

If you want to ski without a helmet as an adult, or even play football without one, that’s fine but let’s protect our children. Just consider the fact that we are talking about a potentially dangerous high speed sport. A child needs a helmet to ride a bicycle. Why shouldn’t he wear one skiing?

A state law mandating helmet use for skiing by all children is just plain good old common sense use of the stuff God gave you to put in it.

March 6, 2003

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