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Dangers of Skiing and Snowboarding Minimize
Skiing and snowboarding are no more dangerous than other high-energy participation sports, and less so than some common activities. However, it is challenging and it requires physical skills that are only learned over time with practice. It involves some risk, but in some measure, it is that risk that entices most skiers and riders to pursue the sport. Because snowboarding is a relatively new sport, around only the past 10-15 years, more data is available about skiing injuries.

According to the National Ski Areas Association: During the past 13 years, about 34 people have died skiing per year on average. During the 1996-97 season 36 fatalities occurred out of the 52.5 million skier/snowboarder days reported for the season. Thirty-two of these fatalities were males, four of which were snowboarders. The rate of fatality was .69 per million skier/snowboarder visits.

Serious injuries (paraplegic, quadriplegic, serious head injury, comas and other spinal injuries) occur at the rate of about 29 per year, the NSAA reports. In the 1996-1997 season, there were 45 serious injuries. Thirty-seven of these serious injuries were males and nine of which were snowboarders. The rate of serious injury in 1996-1997 was .86 per million skier/snowboarder visits.

Although skiing and snowboarding have inherent risks, the sports are not necessarily more dangerous when compared to other activities. For example, according to the National Safety Council, in 1995 (most recent figures available) there were 4,500 drownings in boating, swimming and other on-water activities. This equates to 17 deaths per 1 million participants. In bicycling, there were 900 bicycle deaths, equating to 7.1 deaths per million participants. In 1995, according to the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA), there were 9.2 million skiers and 2.8 million snowboarders, totaling 12 million on-slope participants. In 1995 there were 35 skier/snowboarder fatalities. The per-participant fatality rate in 1995 equates to 2.9 per 1 million on-slope participants. In 1995, there were 54 million skier/snowboarder visits, equating to a fatality rate of .65 per one million skier/snowboarder visit.

The NSGA estimates during 1996, there were 10.5 million skiers and 3.7 million snowboarders, totaling 14.2 million on-slope participants. During the 1996-1997 season there were 36 fatalities.

The skier/snowboarder per-participant fatality rate was 2.5 deaths per 1 million skier/snowboarder participants. During the 1996-1997 season, there were 52.5 million skier/snowboarder visits. The per-skier/snowboarder visit fatality rate was .69 per million skier/snowboarder visits.

Although there is no statistical significance to the following, it helps to offer a perspective: A recent Conde Nast Traveler article pointed out that about 42,000 Americans die each year in automobile accidents; 22,000 are murdered; 13,000 fall to their deaths, including 300 in bathtubs; 6,500 die from poisoning; 2,500 from medical treatment; 2,900 by choking on food; and 800 die when hit by falling objects. The National Severe Storms Laboratory reports that an average of 89 people have died in the U.S. each year from lightning strikes

Have Some Injuries Increased?
The overall rate of reported injuries has declined by 50 percent during the past 25 years according to Dr. Jasper Shealy of the Rochester Institute of Technology. The much-feared broken lower leg in skiing is now a thing of the past, declining more than 95 percent since the early 1970s.

The most significant trend in ski injuries over the past 23 years, according to a study by the University of Vermont Department of Orthopedics, is in ACL injuries, or injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament of the knees, which crosses the knee at a diagonal angle underneath the kneecap. A skier's chance of getting an ACL injury is about on par with that of a college football player's chance, and is about 365 times greater than that of the general public, says the University of Vermont.

It's hard to say if snowboard injuries have increased or decreased because it's still a relatively new sport; it became a recognized sport in the mid-1980s.

Who Gets Killed or Injured While Skiing?
Most fatalities and injuries to skiers occur in the same population that suffers from high-risk behavior. Victims are predominantly male (85 percent of them are) from their late teens to late 20s (70 percent), according to Jasper Shealy, professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., who has studied skier injuries. Dr. Shealy says they are usually better than average skiers who are skiing at high rates of speed on the margins of intermediate trails. This is the same population that suffers the majority of all unintentional deaths from injury. In 1995, they suffered 74 percent of all fatal car accidents and have 85 percent of all industrial accidents, Dr. Shealy reports. Males comprise about 60 percent of skiing participants.

Are Lifts Safe?
Deaths from failures of lift-system operations have occurred only rarely in the past 23 years. Thirteen deaths have been attributed to lifts (also called cable ropeways by the industry) since 1973 in the U.S.; a time period in which the industry provided about 8.5 billion lift rides, or took skiers more than 4.2 billion miles, according to the NSAA's statistics. That's a death rate of 0.3 per 100 million lift miles. In 1995, about 43,900 people died in car accidents, for a death rate of 1.83 for every 100 million vehicle miles, according to the National Safety Council.

The most recent death in the U.S. due to a lift accident was in 1993 at a California resort when a detachable quad lift failed. In 1985, there were two deaths caused by a failure of a lift at a Colorado resort. There have been no other lift-related deaths in the 1980s or 1990s at a resort in the U.S., according to the NSAA. Although basic lift design hasn't changed significantly over the past 20 years, lift operators today have better equipment to monitor lift characteristics and better warning systems to avoid accidents, the NSAA reports.

An accident Dec. 23, 1995, at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia, Canada, caused two deaths and 8 injuries. On the downloading side of the Quicksilver detachable quad, a chair became detached from the haul line and slid into a chair below it, which caused the first chair to fall from the line. The second chair also slid into the chair below it and those two chairs slid into a fourth chair. All four chairs fell about 30 feet. The lift was fairly new and had been recently inspected, and the grips were replaced before the area opened for the 1995-1996 season.

Is Snowboarding More Dangerous Than Skiing?
After adjusting for age and sex of the participant, snowboarding isn't inherently more dangerous than skiing, according to Dr. Shealy of the Rochester Institute of Technology, according to a study done in 1990 of 16 mountain resorts that were statistically representative of U.S. skiing. While 7.4 percent of all ski injuries are due to a skier leaving the trail and hitting a stationary object, only 3.6 percent of snowboarders injury themselves that way. Overall, their injury rates are comparable with skier injury rates, Dr. Shealy reports. (He reports the subset of areas that had 5 percent or more had an injury rate of 2.66 injuries per 1000 skier days for skiers and 2.99 for snowboarders.)

Snowboarders don't appear to be making the slopes less safe for their skiing peers, either, says Dr. Shealy. In a study presented at the Ninth International Symposium on Skiing Trauma and Safety in 1993, Dr. Shealy reported that 7.7 percent of all ski injuries are the result of skiers running into skiers, while snowboarders running into others cause only 2.6 percent of snowboard accidents. In the 1995-1996 season, snowboarders suffered 7 serious injuries and 2 fatalities.

What Injuries Are Most Common?
About 58 percent of all skier/snowboarder injuries are upper body injuries -- typically breaks or sprains of the arms, wrists and hands. About 28 percent of injuries are to the knees. Other leg and foot injuries make up most of the other injuries. The vast majority of injured skiers and snowboarders who report to emergency rooms are treated and released the same day, according to Dr. Shealy.

What is Being Done to Improve Safety?
Mountain resorts expend tremendous energy and expense educating their guests about skier and snowboarder safety. NSAA and its member areas officially endorse "
Your Responsibility Code," the seven slope safety points which everyone who enjoys alpine sports should follow. Also, NSAA created a new safety campaign, "Look Before You Leap," which emphasizes how guests need to use caution when jumping and leaping on the slopes, especially at resort's popular snowboard and terrain parks. Posters are displayed at many resorts nationwide. The association also produced a safety awareness video last season (1996-1997) entitled, "5989, The Rob Baker Safety Awareness Video," which recounts the tragic death of Rob Baker, a 16-year-old skier who died as the result of a tragic skier/snowboarder collision. In this 9-minute video, viewers are reminded about the importance of following the rules established by Your Responsibility Code. The video is used by resorts for their skier/snowboard safety programs and it was produced in cooperation with Sandia Peak Ski Company, Ski Industries America, National Ski Patrol and Professional Ski Instructors of America, Transworld Snowboard Business magazine and Willis Corroon Insurance.

Skiers and riders at every NSAA-member resort in the U.S. are given several opportunities to learn how to ski safely. All ski areas endorse and are asked to display Your Responsibility Code, which admonishes skiers and snowboarders to ski and ride within their ability, to watch for skiers downhill, to look uphill before entering a trail, to move to the side of the trail when stopping, and to practice courteous ski habits. Those who break the code are routinely stripped of their passes by ski patrollers.

Ski areas have undertaken several programs to increase ski safety. Those programs range from establishing family ski areas to increasing the number of monitors on the slopes. More than 85 U.S. areas have participated in ACL employee training to help reduce injuries to the ACL. Increasing the lessons offered to snowboarders has improved the level of proper etiquette among the newest population of on-mountain participants as well. The number of beginner lessons given to snowboarders increased 52.6 percent in the 1996-1997 season over the year before, according to the most recent Kottke National End of Season Survey produced by RRC Associates.
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