Ski pro says control is the key to safety

January 07, 1998

Ski pro says control is the key to safety


Staff Writer, Chambersburg

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - The skiing deaths of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono didn't stop skiers from flocking to local slopes Tuesday, although some said the accidents have made them more aware of the risks of the popular sport.

"To me, it's a freak accident ... But it shows that you can't take your ability for granted," said Pam Mason of Columbia, Md., a novice skier who had just completed a run on the beginner's slope at Whitetail Ski Resort near Mercersburg.

Kennedy, the 39-year-old son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, died Dec. 31 after hitting a tree while playing football on skis in Aspen, Colo.


Bono, 62, a 1960s pop singer and television star turned California congressman, died Monday when he skied into a tree at Heavenly Ski Resort on the Nevada-California state line.

"In both cases, the accidents were preventable," said Stephen K. Rice, president of Whitetail.

Both skiers broke the first universal skier responsibility code - always stay in control and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects - which led to their deaths, Rice said.

"Skiing should be pursued with a healthy dose of common sense," he said.

Whitetail was the scene of a skiing-related death on Dec. 29 when a 59-year-old Alexandria, Va., man broke his neck while skiing on an intermediate slope.

There were no witnesses to the accident, but ski officials believe speed may have been a factor.

"We categorize that as a freak accident. There's nothing that could've been done on our part to prevent it," Rice said. He said there was no obstruction nearby and that the snow on the slope had been groomed and was smooth.

Skiing ranks as one of the safest sports, according to statistics from the National Ski Area Association and the National Safety Council.

Nationwide, there were 52.3 million skiing visits during the 1996-1997 ski season. During that period 36 people died in skiing or snowboarding accidents.

The skiing fatality rate is less than one person per 1 million skiing visits, according to statistics.

In the same season, 45 skiers sustained serious injuries, defined as paralysis or other spinal injury, serious head injury and comas.

Skiing accidents like Kennedy's and Bono's "are really not common at all," said Missy Merrell, marketing director at Ski Liberty resort in Fairfield, Pa.

"When you compare the statistics with other sports, skiing is an extremely safe sport," she said.

In 1996, there were 716 recreational boating deaths and 800 bicycle deaths, according to a report by the National Safety Council.

The overall rate of reported skiing injuries has declined by 50 percent during the past 25 years.

Broken legs, once a common ski injury, are almost a thing of the past, declining by more than 95 percent since the early 1970s, according to statistics.

In the last 20 years, advances in skiing technology, including snow-making, grooming and equipment, have made the sport safer, Rice said.

"It's not something you worry about. Skiing is a sport you fall down in. The risks in skiing are like those in any other sport," said Kim Sherman, 56, of Columbia, Md., who has skied for more than 30 years but was hitting the slopes at Whitetail for the first time on Tuesday.

If anything, the recent skiing fatalities are likely to make people stop and think and pay a little more attention to what they're doing on the slopes, Merrell said.

Most ski resorts require a first-time skier to take a lesson with a qualified instructor before hitting the slopes.

Whitetail and Ski Liberty offer learn-to-ski packages that include a lesson, lift ticket and equipment rental.

Ski safety tips

1. Always stay in control, and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.

2. People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.

3. You must not stop where you will obstruct a trail, or are not visible from above.

4. Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.

5. Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.

6. Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.

7. Prior to using any lift, you must have knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely.

Source: National Ski Areas Association.

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