Death on the Alps Fuels Safety Debate

German politician convicted of manslaughter by negligence after deadly ski crash

January 12, 2009, 9:48 AM

BERLIN, Jan. 12, 2009 — -- German politician Dieter Althaus, who strayed onto the wrong sky slope and fatally injured a fellow skier during a collision, was convicted today of manslaughter by negligence.

A court in the Austrian town of Irdning sentenced Althaus, a state governor and key ally to Chancellor Angela Merkel, to a fine of $41,500.

In addition, the court ordered him to pay a fine of $6,250 to compensate the husband of Beata Christandl, the mother of four, who was killed in the accident.

Althaus did not attend the trial, as he is still at a therapy center in southern Germany recovering from severe head injuries he sustained in the New Year's Day accident at the Riesner Alm ski area in Austria's Styria region.

The trial came as a surprise. It had not been announced in advance, and Austrian prosecutors had disclosed only Monday that they had filed charges against Althaus.

Prosecutors said the politician had entered onto a slope against the direction of traffic shortly before crashing head on into the other skier, who died of severe head injuries.

Prosecutors had received a letter from Althaus in which he stated that he had no recollection of the incident as such but had assumed responsibility for the accident as it was reconstructed.

Court spokeswoman Sabine Anzenberger told ABC News in a telephone conversation,"Mr. Althaus has accepted the verdict."

The deadly accident had sparked a nationwide debate over ways to improve safety on the slopes, and some politicians have suggested enacting legislation requiring skiers and snowboarders to wear protective head gear.

Althaus, an experienced skier, had been wearing a helmet but the victim was not.

After the accident, Althaus, 50, was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Schwarzach with serious head injuries, including minor bleeding in the brain and skull fractures.

Christandl, 41, died en route to the hospital.

Althaus was reportedly skiing against the flow of skiers when he rounded a corner and crashed head on with Christandl.

The event has sparked scandal in Germany, provoked by the charges of manslaughter and questions of whether Althaus was skiing responsibly.

Helmet Safety Law Divides Europe

The high-profile accident heated up the debate on helmet safety in Germany and beyond.

Europe has staggering numbers of tourists every winter, sloshing through the Alps of France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

This year has been an exceptional season for skiing. Early snow and cold temperatures have driven more people to the mountains.

The recent fatality in Austria has led lawmakers and slope communities across Europe to question why they don't have a unified ski safety regulation in place. According to the Austrian Committee on Traffic Safety, there are about 55,000 skiing injuries per year. Ten percent of all ski injuries are head-related.

On Christmas Day, a 16-year-old boy at an Italian ski resort near Bolzano hit and killed a father who was skiing on the slopes with his daughter. He said he was unaware that the man was seriously injured and left the scene. He later turned himself in when he realized what he had done.

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.

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."

Helmet Probably Saved Althaus

Responsibility appears to be a key issue worldwide. Norbert Hoeflacher of the German Federation of Skiing told ABC that it's "unnecessary to make a law. With more safety campaigns and information available to the public, and with some ski resorts already giving away free helmets, we should reach 100 percent without a law."

As for the fateful day of Jan. 1, experts believe that although the two parties were skiing at about 30 miles per hour, wearing a helmet played a huge part in keeping Althaus alive.

The U.S. National Ski Areas Association says, however, that the testing standard on helmets in the United States is limited to 14 mph, stirring further debate about their effectiveness.

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