April 05, 2020

Skiing deaths raise safety questions

After Patrick Baldwin heard that Michael Kennedy fractured his skull and died in a ski accident, he bought his 11-year-old son a helmet.

“It makes us all aware that this is a dangerous sport,” said Baldwin, 46, of Holliston, Mass., as he stood on the slopes at Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont. “Through his death, it will make skiing a safer sport.”

The deaths of Kennedy and, on Tuesday, Sonny Bono have raised awareness of the sport’s dangers and could lead to certain safety measures, such as mandatory helmet use. Both men died of head injuries.

The issue already was under consideration by the American Medical Association. Last month, an AMA committee report said youngsters should be urged to wear ski helmets.

On Tuesday, Dr. Carolyn Ferree, chairwoman of the committee, said the two high-profile deaths may prompt the nation’s largest organization of doctors to rethink the issue and perhaps press for legislation requiring helmet use, even among adults.

Bono died after hitting a tree Monday at a resort on the Nevada-California line.

His death came less than a week after Kennedy, the 39-year-old son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, slammed into a tree while playing football on skis in Aspen, Colo. A coroner said a helmet might have helped Kennedy survive, but it would not have prevented his spinal and neck injuries.

In Maine, David W. Beal, 30, of Bangor died at a Greenville hospital last Dec. 7 after suffering head injuries in a skiing accident on Big Squaw Mountain.

Head injuries account for 2.6 percent of all ski accidents, according to an AMA report based on ski mishaps at Sugarbush, Vt., from 1981 to 1997. Using an estimate from Sugarbush that was multiplied by the estimated number of ski visits nationally, the AMA concluded there were 135,000 accidents and 3,537 potentially serious head injuries during that period.

Of those head injuries, 77 percent were mild concussions; less than 1 percent were fatal.

By the AMA’s estimate, two skiers, on average, die of head injuries each year.

AMA committee members said they tabled the resolution because they had no data on which helmets might be best or how they might be built to provide the greatest protection. Also, their cost can be prohibitive, at $100 to $200 apiece.

But an AMA endorsement of ski helmets could carry considerable weight. In the 1980s, several states adopted bicycle helmet laws based on the recommendation from the prestigious organization.

Some skiers already have made adjustments.

At Gould Academy, a prep school in Bethel, Maine, recent injuries prompted administrators to send a letter to parents urging them to have their children wear helmets. “It’s going to help you more times than it’s not,” said Sue Gardner, athletic director.

Phil Strain of Denver, an avid skier who once suffered a minor concussion on the slopes, said the deaths of Bono and Kennedy prompted him to buy a helmet Tuesday.

“I have taken the accidents as a sign I should act on my intuition,” he said while purchasing one at a Denver sporting goods store.

While Strain said he sees almost all kids wearing helmets on the slopes, they may not be as popular with adult skiers because of the “cool factor.”

The issue also drew the attention of some congressmen, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md.

“If this raises the awareness that one needs to be careful, that’s fine,” Bartlett said. “But if it leads to some regulations and more involvement of Big Brother, then that’s something that Sonny Bono absolutely would not have wanted.”

Michael Berry, a spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association, said resorts don’t require helmets because there are no recognized standards for which ones are best. He said he doesn’t see mandated helmet use in the sport’s immediate future.

“If you’re in control, then the need for appliances becomes less important,” Berry said. “These accidents are focusing attention on a sport that actually has a good safety record.”

Other skiers agreed, saying the sport is safe for those who exercise care.

Pat Carr of Fairmont, W.Va., said he has hobbies that are more dangerous. He said he used to race dirt bikes, and his latest avocation is flying. The deaths of Kennedy and Bono were a “freak” occurrence that would not affect his family’s plans for a trip to Canaan Valley Ski Resort in Davis, W.Va.

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