Death on the Alps Fuels Safety Debate

Italy Takes Action

After many seasons of accidents on the slope, Italy has taken action. Since 2005, Italy has boasted the only mandatory child helmet protection law, forcing anyone younger than 14 to wear protective headgear. Not only are there hefty fines for not adhering to the law but skiers who travel off the ski run must also wear electronic pagers.

Italian doctor Claudio Detogni, who formerly managed BEPRASA, the European Commissions project on skiing accident prevention, said recently, "Statistics say that helmets prevent chronic head trauma in biking and, therefore, in skiing."

And across the Alps, he said, neighboring countries have been opposing legislation concerning ski safety. "They don't want it," he told ABC News. "They think sports shouldn't be regulated. The problem is multifaceted and complicated. It's not just the way you ski. Drugs, alcohol and different cultures contribute greatly."

In Tyrol, Austria, where the business is resorts, drinking and ski parties, Peter Veider, general manager of the local Mountain Rescue Service, has had a rough start to 2009.

Slope Parties Play a Factor

"Just in the first few days of the new year we have had nine sledding accidents," Veider said. "That's way up from last year. Because of this year's snow, there are a lot more people on the mountains. Sometimes they stop by a bar for a hot wine, or two, and then they drink a little too much and go way too fast."

He also affirmed that the advancement of technology such as carbon-fiber skis has caused an increase in injuries. "It's the ski that's doing all the work for you. An inexperienced skier cannot control the excess speed."

When asked about regulating safety in Austria, he said, "We need more consciousness of problems and risks rather than more legal obligations in skiing and other mountain sports. There are enough laws."

Austrian politician Hannes Gschwentner thinks otherwise. He has plans to mandate helmet safety not just in Tyrol but he also wishes to standardize the legislation in all European Union countries. The Austrian Committee on Traffic Safety supports a ski helmet law.

Politicians are discussing a law that would require all snowboarders and skiers younger than 14 to wear protection.

Anton Dunzendorfer, head of home, leisure and sports, said, "Because children's brains are softer than adults, there needs to be specific prevention against shock and impact."

In the United States, helmet regulations are also a gray area. There are no federal or state laws requiring the usage of any ski protective headgear. Motorcycle and biking helmets, on the other hand, are required in 20 states.

No Helmet for Most U.S. Skiers

According to the American National Ski Areas Association, which regulates 326 resorts, nearly 43 percent of all snowboarders and skiers already don helmets without a mandate.

Geraldine Link, the association's director of public policy, said, "Helmets are not a panacea, they are a second line of defense."

Link believes in the "code of the slope," which promotes self-control, individual responsibility and expects the user to make "good decisions."

That certainly holds true for Melanie Mills, a Colorado resident and avid skier.

"My children wear helmets when they ski, I do not," she said. "It's a matter of personal choice. One can find tragic stories associated with almost any activity. I choose not to be afraid but to participate responsibly."

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