How Safe Is Snowboarding? Myths and half-truths cloud public perception about safety

Are the following statements true or false?

•Snowboarders are more likely to become injured and to cause injuries than skiers.

•If Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy had been wearing helmets, they would be alive today.

•Deaths on the slopes have been steadily increasing.

If you answered false to all three, you're right; unfortunately, you're probably in the minority. Those are just a few of the misconceptions about skiing and snowboarding safety that the mainstream press has helped sell to the public. That was the message at “Safety in the Ski Industry: Thrills vs. Risk Management” sponsored by The Snow Industry Letter at the preseason meeting of the Eastern Ski Writers Association (ESWA) at Wachusett Mountain, Massachusetts, August 27—29.

Keynote speakers Carl Ettlinger and Dr. Jasper Shealy debunked some of the myths–which have been perpetuated by the press and not necessarily dispelled by the industry–about injury and death rates in skiing and snowboarding before an audience of 70 journalists and industry executives.

Safety: Snowboarding Versus Skiing Snowboarders have a 40-percent lower death rate than Alpine skiers and are more likely to be hit by out-of-control skiers than the other way around, according to Shealy, chairman of the department of Industrial Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology. Part of the reason is that skiers slide when they fall and are three to four times more likely to hit something, whereas a snowboard acts as “a sea anchor,” preventing sliding when the rider falls. Deaths in skiing and snowboarding usually result from hitting something, he said.

A helmet will not protect someone who is moving at more than about twelve to fifteen miles per hour, Shealy said. Those most at risk of death are better-than-average adult males who are usually traveling at somewhere between 25 and 40 miles per hour. And despite the high-profile deaths of Bono and Kennedy and the resulting publicity, there has been “no statistically significant difference” in the rate of fatalities in recent years, Shealy said.

At less than .5 deaths per million snowboarder visits, people are two to four times more likely to die in an automobile or on an airplane, he said.

Helmet Use–No Panacea Helmets have become a hot-button issue in the snowsports industry with the introduction in the New Jersey legislature of a bill that would make helmets mandatory for children fourteen and under, and require ski areas to provide those helmets. Shealy said some have accused the Rochester Institute of being anti-helmet, but that isn't the case.

Shealy did point out some of the fallacies about helmets, though. The number of head injuries is relatively small–about 3,600 nationally a year–and most of those are mild concussions. Of the 33 or 39 people who died last year (depending on how you count), six were wearing helmets.

Ettlinger noted that this is partly a behavior issue, and compared it to driving a car with anti-lock brakes or a hockey player wearing heavy padding. In both cases, more injuries have resulted from people feeling they are indestructible.

“A helmet is not a panacea; it's not a magic bullet,” he said. Wearing a helmet, like the hockey player's padding and the anti-lock brakes, can lead to what Wearing calls “the law of unintended consequences.”

In Perspective Along with Dr. Robert Johnson of the University of Vermont, Ettlinger and Shealy have been studying injuries at the Sugarbush Ski Resort in Vermont for the past 28 years. Ettlinger, president of Vermont Safety Research and adjunct professor at the University of Vermont Medical College, put the scope of the problem in perspective:

Approximately eleven-million skiers and four-million snowboarders in the U.S. participate in the sports at leasst once a year. The yearly average is about 50- to 55-million resort visits. There are about 2.5 medically significant injuries per 1,000 skier visits. This is equivalent to one injury every 430 days of snowboarding (about 50 years of snowboarding for most participants).

Almost half of all injuries are sprains, mostly minor. The overall injury rate in Alpine sports has declined by 50 percent over the past 25 years.

NSAA president Michael Berry said that while a Wall Street Journal article last winter made it seem that ski- and snowboard-related fatalities are on the rise, the reality is that they have remained fairly constant for a number of years. There were 26 the year Bono and Kennedy died; the historic average is about 35 deaths annually. The WSJ article also had some seriously flawed statistics, he noted, which were the result of errors in basic math.

Mandatory Helmet Legislation TSIL Publisher Bob Gillen read an emotional letter from Dr. Norman San Agustine, whose daughter died of head injuries following a ski accident in 1989 at Hidden Valley ski area in New Jersey. Dr. San Agustine has been instrumental in launching safety bills in the New Jersey legislature; last year a bill was proposed that would require children under the age of fourteen to wear helmets, and require ski areas to provide them. Gillen also read remarks by Dr. Jill Brooks, an associate professor of neurology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, who testified before the New Jersey legislature.

In her testimony, Brooks' cited a Consumer Products Safety Commission study on the efficacy of helmet use. The problem with the study, Ettlinger pointed out, was that it was based on 124 injuries over a period of two months, whereas Ettlinger's studies have looked at more than 16,000 injuries over nearly 30 years. Mandatory helmet use would cost the industry between 50- and 100-million dollars to maintain, Shealy said.