Colo. slopes' 15 deaths so far in ski season set record high for state

Officials are puzzled

numbers focus attention on use of headgear

March 31, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ASPEN, Colo. - As another ski season winds down, industry officials in Colorado are puzzling over why more people have died in skiing accidents this winter than ever before, a record that has brought new attention to the use of helmets for protection against serious head injuries.

So far, the death toll in Colorado is 15 - 14 skiers and 1 snowboarder - surpassing the previous high of 12 set in the winter of 1998-99. In only one case this season was the victim wearing a helmet.

The accidents fall into no discernible pattern. Among the victims, eight were male, seven were female. Their ages ranged from 5 to 67, and their accidents occurred at nine resorts, where some were skiing on expert slopes while others were on intermediate and easy trails.

"Unfortunately, there was no common element," said Mike Kaplan, vice president for mountain operations for the Aspen Skiing Co., which runs four ski areas here where five of this season's deaths occurred. "I almost wish there were. Then we could take more decisive action."

Skiing accidents, like car crashes, can happen at any time and often arise from a momentary lapse in judgment or an irresponsible decision. Ski industry officials contend that the number of deaths this year does not necessarily reflect dangerous new trends.

Annual fatality surveys by the National Ski Areas Association show that in the 17 years of tracking, the total has fluctuated for no apparent reason, with as many as 49 deaths in the 1994-95 season and as few as 24 in 1989-90. Last season, 47 people died. But the skiing deaths in Colorado have recharged a debate over the value of helmets, and no incident fueled arguments for their use more than the death of Leonie Arguetty, 5, of Wellington, Fla., who skied into a tree at Aspen Highlands during a private lesson in February. Medical experts said she was one of several victims who might have survived had they worn helmets.

Her death, one of four at Highlands this winter, prompted company officials to require all children age 6 and younger who attend ski school to wear helmets. The change that took effect in March.

Next season, all children age12 and younger must wear helmets, a requirement that Vail Resorts is also planning for next season. David Perry, chief executive of Colorado Ski Country, a trade organization, said he expected other resorts to follow.

It is a change that has been hailed by many medical officials, who say helmets can reduce the severity of head injuries, which account for as many as 90 percent of all skiing deaths.

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