The Most Important Safety Equipment on the Slopes
Author thumbnail By James Chen, DCSki Columnist

With the beginning of the 2000-2001 winter season upon us, skiers and boarders alike are digging out their boots, skis, and boards from the confines of the back closet, and making sure they have all the other equipment necessary for fun in the snow.

In addition to the usual gloves, goggles, and Gore-tex, many skiers and boarders are also including safety gear in their equipment lists for the first time, especially in light of the highly publicized incidents involving Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy in recent seasons. This new equipment often includes such items as helmets, wrist guards, and assorted other pads and safety paraphernalia. Unfortunately, the most essential piece of safety equipment for winter fun is often forgotten - namely, what’s under the helmet.

Statistically speaking, skiing and boarding are still among the safest sports. For example, last season there were a total of 30 deaths and 44 serious injuries for over 10.4 million participants, according to the National Ski Areas Association. That’s the equivalent of roughly eight deaths or serious injuries per million skiers/boarders. The chances of getting struck by lightning are better. By contrast, in 1999, bicycling recorded 900 deaths out of 42.4 million participants, according to the National Safety Council. Swimming recorded 1,500 deaths out of 57.9 million swimmers.

Regardless of the relative safety of winter sports, all participants should not forget that the most important piece of safety equipment that anyone can use is his or her head. Thinking safety starts well before hitting the slopes. The first step should always be a thorough check of all equipment. Not just digging the skis, boots, and boards out of the attic or closet, but a thorough inspection. For example, are the toes or heels of your boots worn down? If so, you may not get good contact with your binding system. Best bet is to replace the toe or heel pieces if possible - if not, it might be time for new boots.

Speaking of bindings, when was the last time your bindings underwent a release check? Binding manufacturers recommend bindings undergo professional release checks at least once a year. Yet many skiers do not bother with this important preventative maintenance. According to a recent article in Skiing magazine, up to three-quarters of lower leg injuries could be prevented by properly functioning release systems.

Once you get to the slopes, remember that you will have plenty of company. Statistics from the National Ski Areas Association indicate that there were over 52.2 million skier and boarder visits in the 1999-2000 winter season. That many skier/boarder visits can make for some crowded slopes!

In order to enjoy your visit (including avoiding injury), it is important to remember to use a lot of common sense and a bit of courtesy. Remember “Your Responsibility Code?” It’s those seven little rules printed on the napkins of those ski area restaurants where hamburgers go for $7.00 a pop. Read through that code and you will notice that a lot of it involves common sense and simple courtesy. Downhill skiers/boarders have the right of way - look before merging - don’t ski out of bounds - don’t stop where you can’t be seen from above, etc. Simply put, don’t check your mind at the bottom of the slope.

Be aware of what’s going around you and what others are doing. Expect other skiers and boarders to do unexpected things like cut you off. This is especially true with the advent of new equipment designed for carving like shaped skis. Using common sense and simple courtesy can go a long way in keeping you out of trouble and not just from an injury point of view.

Just this month, a jury in Colorado found a skier guilty of criminally negligent homicide for colliding with and killing another skier. This unfortunate skier now faces the prospect of up to six years in prison for his recklessness. While this case is certainly not the norm, it does demonstrate the need to use that all important piece of safety equipment under your hat/helmet. If you stay aware, it is easier to avoid potential dangers. In addition, you may find that staying aware and using some common sense and a bit of courtesy may just help you have the most fun you’ve ever had on the slopes.

About James Chen

James "Jim" Chen" is a member of the National Ski Patrol and Assistant Patrol Director at Liberty Mountain ski area in Carroll Valley, Pennsylvania. Jim has been a member of the Liberty Patrol since the 1995-1996 season. Off the slopes, Jim is an attorney in Washington, D.C. where he counsels clients on transportation, innovation, safety and environmental areas.

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