Skiing, Safety and the Law

on March 24 | in General, Safety, Video | by | with Comments Off

Some of our readers may have seen the recent Denver Post series supposedly about ski safety and the industry here in Colorado. Below Colorado Ski Country USA responds to the articles.

One of the major reasons people live in and visit Colorado is the opportunity to participate in the many outdoor activities our great state offers. Skiing and snowboarding are our state’s signature sports. There are 520,000 Coloradans who are active participants in skiing and snowboarding at Colorado’s 25 ski areas. Skiers and snowboarders spend nearly $3 billion each year pursuing their favorite sport in our state, with 60-70 percent of each dollar spent going to support a business other than a ski area. Colorado ski areas provide world class recreation opportunities in conjunction with our partners at the United States Forest Service and introduce many to our nation’s spectacular public lands.

These recreation opportunities would not be possible without the Colorado Ski Safety Act. Originally enacted in 1979 (when the few insurers willing to insure ski areas determined they would leave the state because of excessive and costly litigation), the Ski Safety Act does three primary things: 1) it establishes responsibilities for ski areas; 2) it establishes responsibilities for skiers and 3) it spells out risks inherent in the sport of skiing. All three tenets of the Ski Safety Act are as relevant, reasonable and necessary today as they were when the Act was adopted 34 years ago. It has stood the test of time. Since 1979, 27 states have modeled similar legislation on Colorado’s law.

Under the law, ski area responsibilities include: marking trails, posting various warnings, chairlift instructions (chairlift operations are governed by another law), marking certain structures, delineating boundaries and providing notice of on-mountain trail closures. Specific requirements apply to grooming vehicles and snowmobiles. Skiers can and do sue ski areas if they are injured by a ski area’s failure to carry out its responsibilities described in the Act. In fact, the Denver Post’s recent series of articles purportedly about ski safety came out of a close coordination with lawyers who make a handsome living suing ski areas.

Under the law, responsibilities of skiers and snowboarders include: knowing and skiing within the limits of one’s ability, maintaining control of one’s course and speed, obeying closures, heeding all posted information and warnings and avoiding skiing or riding chairlifts if impaired by drugs or alcohol. A skier’s behavior has as much, if not more, to do with the safety of the sport as any piece of equipment from helmet to chairlift.

The law states that skiing and snowboarding are inherently risky. The sports are gravity fed, and are practiced on snowy surfaces and inclines, from mild to steep. The Ski Safety Act articulates inherent risks including; changing weather conditions, snow conditions as they exist or may change, rocks, trees, collisions with natural or manmade objects, and variations in steepness or terrain; it requires ski areas to inform skiers about these risks and provides that skiers injured through them may not sue the ski area. This key provision of the Act was adopted to protect ski areas from claims and litigation for risks assumed by skiers because the risks are inherent and cannot be eliminated. It’s what allows ski areas to obtain insurance and keep the cost of skiing reasonable.

Ski areas’ safety practices do not begin and end with the Ski Safety Act. Ski areas lead the recreation industry in their adoption of proactive safety measures and programs including Lids on Kids, Smart Style, Objects are Closer Than They Appear, terrainparksafety.org, Kids on Lifts and National Safety Awareness Week. All ski areas want their guests to have a safe and enjoyable experience. Some examples of these efforts are resorts going into schools and communities to educate and inform about mountain safety; guests and members of the community being invited to come to the resort and meet with patrollers, join patrollers on the mountain and learn firsthand about slope safety; and having dedicated resort safety experts make presentations to local clubs and organizations on safety and skier responsibilities. Your Responsibility Code spells out what’s expected of skiers and is visible everywhere, at every ski area, in multiple locations.

Many resorts conduct school visits and see great value in this as a way to educate kids about mountain safety. An example of a school visit series is Aspen/Snowmass’ two part Fifth Grade Skier Education Program. The first part is a classroom visit by members of ski patrol who show safety videos and discuss on-mountain safety with the students. Part two includes bringing each class onto the mountain to spend a day with ski patrol. Children are shown how patrol does the morning trail checks, they learn about rescue equipment, they discuss boundary policies, lift evacuation, avalanche control and skier safety on the mountain. Kids learn valuable lessons and develop relationships with these safety experts.

Resorts also inform guests about safety conduct regarding specific parts of the resort such as chairlifts, terrain parks and treewells, to name a few. For example, Copper Mountain has a Lift Safety initiative directed at all beginner skiers and snowboarders. The initiative educates guests on the key elements of safe loading, riding and unloading a lift. These important safety tips are presented in a fun format that resonates with young guests, they are also found at the bottom of all beginner lifts and in Copper’s School House (kids ski school center).

Some resorts, such as Winter Park, require terrain park users to watch a safety video before entering the park. Steamboat shows terrain park safety videos in their ticket offices and gondola loading area. Resorts with extensive tree skiing, such as Steamboat, will proactively post flyers informing the public about the hazards of treewells.

Every year resorts dedicate an entire week to focus solely on informing guests about safety. During National Safety Awareness Week resorts will set up complete safety villages at their bases and hold education events, host safety equipment demonstrations and complimentary equipment checks, involve kids with contests about safety, and incorporate local emergency and health professionals such as Flight for Life, National Ski Patrol, USFS Rescue Groups, and representatives from medical centers. Heavy machinery such as snowcats, groomers, and helicopters are on display and used as education tools. The skiing public can participate in free avalanche safety classes, helmet giveaways, terrain park safety classes, and outdoor education classes. In 2011-2012, Colorado ski areas won industry awards for Best Chairlift Safety Education Program, Best Employee Safety Education Program and Most Creative Safety Program.

Despite ski areas’ proactive measures and comprehensive safety education programs, and because the sport is not risk free, skiers do suffer fatal and serious injuries annually on our slopes. On average, a skier’s chance of having a fatal accident is about one in a million. In 2011-2012, 54 skiers and snowboarders died accidentally on ski slopes around the U.S. To put this in perspective, the National Safety Council (Injury Facts, 2012 edition) reports that in 2010, 5,200 pedestrians were killed, 2,500 people drowned while swimming in public pools and 800 people died while bicycling. While not an aspect of active participant sports that anyone wants to emphasize, these statistics are released annually to inform the public.

Ski areas have grown up in Colorado and matured over the years. The sports of skiing and snowboarding have evolved, but they continue to play a large role in the state’s identity with people who live outside of Colorado and around the world. Skiing drives our winter tourism economy and is a source of pride for all who live here. Skiing and snowboarding equipment has evolved. Countless entrepreneurial individuals have started ski and snowboard related businesses in Colorado, manufacturing and selling skis and snowboards and winter outdoor clothing and gear. Grand Junction is home to Leitner-Poma, one of a very small number of ski lift manufacturers in the world. What hasn’t changed, is the desire of skiers and snowboarders to enjoy the pull of gravity, feel the cold fresh air in our faces, take in the splendor of our mountains and revel in the unmatched camaraderie of a day on the slopes with friends or family. Colorado’s Ski Safety Act provides a reasonable and sensible framework for all this to happen. Let’s not mess with success.

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