Celebrity Deaths Spotlight Skiing Dangers...
But who's really to blame?
Tuesday, January 13, 1998

While the highly publicized deaths of politician/actor Sonny Bono and Kennedy clan member Michael on America's ski slopes this past week have alluded to the dangers of skiing, the fact remains that death by lightning is more likely.

1987-1997 Fatality Rates
Season Fatalities Skiier Days
'96-'97 36 52.5 0.69
'95-'96 35 54.0 0.65
'94-'95 49 52.7 0.93
'93-'94 41 54.6 0.75
'92-'93 42 54.0 0.78
'91-'92 35 50.8 0.69
'90-'91 28 46.7 0.60
'89-'90 24 50.0 0.48
'88-'89 26 53.3 0.49
'87-'88 31 53.9 0.58

According to the National Ski Area Association (NSAA), 36 people died as a result of ski related injuries last year, compared to an average of 89 lightning strike deaths. In the '95-'96 ski season, 35 skiers were killed.

Although there is obviously some inherent risk involved in skiing and snowboarding, they are no more dangerous than many other recreational activities. According to the National Safety Council, in 1995, there were 4,500 drownings resulting from boating, swimming and other on-water activities and there were 900 bicycle deaths.

But to shine a different kind of light on the numbers, in 1995, as reported by the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA), there were 9.2 million skiers and 2.8 million snowboarders, totaling 12 million on-slope participants of which there were 35 skier/snowboarder fatalities. This means that in 1995, 17 out of a million people drown while boating; 7.1 people out of a million died riding bikes; and 2.9 people out of a one million died while skiing or snowboarding. But, with 54 million skier/snowboarder visits that year, it equates to a fatality rate of .65 per one million skier/snowboarder visit, the NSGA reported.

So, it's not that skiing isn't dangerous and maybe that's the enticement. The real danger though isn't the sport, but the skiers themselves — dangers to themselves and to each other. Both Bono and Kennedy died of massive head injuries after hitting trees; Bono while tree skiing his last run and Kennedy while playing football with a water bottle, all the while videotaping the game.

So Kennedy was probably more of an outright danger to himself, but Bono, skiing alone, may have been fatigued and perhaps was pushing his body's limits. Both are reported to have been "expert" skiers, both made bad choices.

According to NSAA, an average of 34 people die skiing each year. (The relative newness of snowboarding means less injury data.) The 36 deaths last year were out of 52.5 million ski visits reported. Incidentally, 32 of those killed were males and four were snowboarders. This, according to the NSAA statistics, puts the fatality rate at .69 per million skier/snowboarder visits (a visit is full or partial day or night skiing ticket purchase, including complimentary tickets).

Last year, there were 45 serious injuries that include paraplegic, quadriplegic, serious head injury, coma and other spinal injuries, up from an average of 29 per year.

Inevitably the deaths of such high profile people in such a short period of time will lead to re-visitation of helmet laws. Fleece lined helmets don't sound too bad, automatic hard hat on the thin boned skull and, as with motorcycle and bike helmets, as well as seat belts in most state, it'll still be a choice.

It seems that ultimately the best protection is admittance. Admit you're too tired to take that last run, admit you're not a good enough skier to take that jump, or ski that fast, or to venture on that terrain. While really fun, tree skiing can be hairy. You've got to check your speed and realize that the shade can affect your ability to see the contour and, in powder, stumps can look like jumps.

Everybody reads, or at least glances at, the skier's responsibility code posted in all lift lines, poles at chair level, on the back of the lift ticket, etc.,. These are so far the only way to ask people not to get too crazy and seem mostly a way to protect the innocent — those skiers staying on the marked trails, checking their speed, and checking over their shoulders when trails meet.

But the tree. There's no telling it to get soft and prepare for impact. Overall, a skier leaving the trail or crashing into a stationary object, The NSAA reports, causes 7.4 percent of all ski injuries. There is no mention whether the skier may have left the trail on purpose.

And while a 1993 study found that 7.7 percent of all ski injuries are caused by skiers crashing into skiers, and 2.6 percent are caused by snowboarders running into people, snowboarders need to follow the same rules.

Sarah Love, Mountain Zone Staff

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