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More Skiers, Snowboarders Opt For Head Protection

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Ski resorts across the country are cashing in on a snowy winter. Skiers and snowboarders are packing the slopes and more than ever before they are wearing helmets. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann explains why we're seeing this change.

BRIAN MANN: What convinced you that it was time?

TRACY FLETCHER: The safety factor. Even though I've been skiing forever, I could take a fall and it could be devastating.

MANN: Scott Brandi heads the Ski Areas of New York, part of the National Ski Areas Association. He says education has worked, nearly doubling voluntary ski helmet use over the last decade.

SCOTT BRANDI: You'll look at a ski school - a children's ski school class going on - you know, 90 to 100 percent of the kids are wearing helmets.

MANN: A new study released by the ski resort industry shows helmet use jumped from 43 percent to 48 percent among all skiers and snowboarders over the last year alone. But Brandi acknowledges that there are big gaps in helmet use, especially among older kids.

BRANDI: It goes down as the kids get a little older. Of course vanity comes in. Having had three teenagers, it was always a struggle to get them to wear it.

MANN: Back at Big Tupper Mountain, three high school guys are carrying their snowboards toward the snack bar. Zack Hockey, Corey Whitman and Zack Sheldon are wearing very cool wool caps. They say no one, no one will convince them to wear plastic on their heads.

INSKEEP: Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, it's like walking. You don't use a handrail if you know you can make it up the stairs.

MANN: In the time you've been riding without helmets, have you ever taken a fall?

INSKEEP: Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, he can barely tie his shoes.

INSKEEP: That's a lie. I can tie my shoes.

MANN: Ski and snowboard deaths fluctuate widely in the U.S., from about 20 to 60 fatalities each winter. About half of the people killed aren't wearing head gear. Skeptics say many of those crashes are so severe that helmets wouldn't help. Still, by the ski industry's measure, a quarter of children under the age of nine are still hitting the slopes without head protection and critics say that's unacceptable.

LELAND YEE: As someone who has seen the ill effects of brain injury, this is really about protecting our children.

MANN: Leland Yee is a child psychologist and a state senator in California. This month he introduced a bill that would make helmets mandatory for all skiers in that state under the age of 18.

YI: Incidents of traumatic brain or head injury could in fact be reduced by nearly 50 percent if in fact you wear a helmet. Then it just kind of popped in my head - well, why don't we require that?

MANN: Some in the ski industry say privately that mandatory helmet laws for kids may be inevitable, mirroring the passage of bicycle helmets and child safety seat rules. But the industry has lobbied hard to defeat bills, like the one in California. Scott Brandi says it would force ski areas to monitor the age of every customer on the slope.

BRANDI: Whether or not it's inevitable, you know, that may be. If there was a bill that got passed that made the ski area enforce it, it would be incredibly difficult operationally for us to comply.

MANN: For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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