ALBANY – They must wear helmets when they ride bicycles, and now children under age 14 in New York are looking at a new effort to make them wear protective head gear when they hit the ski slopes.
Legislation recently proposed by a Democrat from the Buffalo area and a Republican who represents major ski slopes in the Adirondacks would have New York join New Jersey as the only states in the nation requiring minors to wear helmets while skiing and snowboarding.
The measure in New York would mirror the state’s bike-riding laws. Parents could face violations issued by local police with fines of up to $50 if their children do not have helmets securely fastened while on skis or snowboards at New York slopes.
While the mandatory ski helmet idea has had trouble advancing in the United States, sponsors of the new legislation here say a trade group for New York ski operators is backing the effort.
“We’re working on trying to make the sport a little safer,’’ said Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, a Cheektowaga Democrat who has sponsored the bill along with Sen. Elizabeth Little, a Republican from north of Albany whose district includes some of the state’s largest ski mountains.
The measure would be less strict than New Jersey’s law, which was passed in 2011 and kicked in last November, requiring helmets on all skiers age 18 and under.
The measure, according to a bill memo accompanying the legislation, is backed by the Ski Areas of New York, a trade group. With that support and its recent introduction by majority party members in the Assembly and Senate, the bill is seen as having no major opposition this session, lawmakers said.
The legislation would require posting of warnings on lift tickets and require ski areas to offer a “reasonable inventory’’ of helmets for rental or sale.
Among skiers, there has been a debate over the years about whether helmets protect people or if they can present their own set of problems, such as reduced peripheral vision, increased neck injuries and more risky moves by skiers feeling a helmet will protect them from their mistakes. Safety advocates blame those assumptions for the unwillingness by states to mandate helmet use at ski areas.
But a study published in November by the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery sought to debunk those concerns, saying there is no evidence that helmets heighten “compensation behavior’’ for skiers who may take more risks wearing helmets.
“The use of safety helmets clearly decreases the risk and severity of head injuries as compared to non-helmeted participation in skiing and snowboarding,’’ the report concluded. Its authors include trauma surgeons.
Ski operators across the country are not embracing the idea of mandatory helmet laws. Troy Hawks, a spokesman for the Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association, said New Jersey – not known for its major ski centers – is alone in requiring helmet use by minors. California lawmakers passed similar legislation, but it was vetoed by the governor.
“Certainly New York seems like a blip. We’re not aware of similar efforts in other states,’’ Hawks said.
The national trade group says about 80 percent of skiers and snowboarders under the age of 14 already use helmets on a regular basis. “Obviously, the data shows that people are complying without a law being in place,’’ Hawks said.
The group’s members – covering more than 300 ski mountains in the United States – saw 54 fatalities last year, up from 47 during the 2010-11 ski season. The trade group said that amounts to 1.06 fatalities per million people based on the 51 million skier visits to the nation’s slopes last season – a rate that has been rising over the past decade.
The group also notes that 36 of the 54 people who died on the slopes last year were wearing helmets at the time.
The legislation in New York would leave enforcement of ski helmet laws entirely up to local police.
Like the state’s bicycle helmet law, a fine of up to $50 could be given to the parent or guardian of a skier under age 14 if the child was not wearing a helmet while in their presence on a slope. A guardian could include, apparently, anyone from another parent who brings a group of children under age 14 skiing to a school chaperone. The fine could be waived if a parent later supplies proof that a helmet was purchased or rented after the summons was issued. A basic child’s helmet can start at about $50.
The head of the Ski Areas of New York State did not return calls to comment, but Gabryszak said he and Little have worked with the trade group to draft the legislation.
Dennis Eshbaugh, president of Holiday Valley in Ellicottville, said he is comfortable with some of the bill’s wording but wonders if it is needed, since voluntary helmet use has been soaring in the past decade. “My personal belief is I don’t feel it’s a necessary action,’’ he said.
“We’ve made huge inroads relative to education, and I’m a real believer in that approach of informing and educating people so they can make good choices,’’ Eshbaugh said. He said teens under age 18 at his slope are in helmets about three-quarters of the time.
Whether the law would actually be enforced is uncertain. Unlike the bicycle helmet law, which would let police riding in a car see if a child is complying with the statute or not, this bill would, practically speaking, require a police officer to be on the slopes.
“It leaves it up to local law enforcement. They may or may not enforce it, but what this does is take the onus off ski resorts and put enforcement on the enforcement agencies,’’ Gabryszak said. He said he knew of no opposition to the measure.
Studies have shown about 600,000 injuries occur on North American ski slopes each year, with up to 20 percent involving head injuries. The total number of what the industry deems “serious injuries’’ – involving internal and head injuries or paralysis – amounted to 51 instances last year in the United States. But that does not include, health experts say, concussions and other head injuries that could be prevented by the use of helmets.
The ski industry says the number of skiers wearing helmets has increased markedly over the years, from 25 percent in 2002 to 67 percent last year for skiers of all ages.
Among young skiers, the numbers are higher; 77 percent of skiers and snowboarders under the age of 17 wore helmets on the slopes, the national trade group reported.