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How Safe Is Skiing?

Features
posted: 12/14/2000

Is skiing safe? Certainly not. Getting out of bed in the morning isn't safe, either, and the day gets riskier from that point on. You could fall down the stairs, get hit crossing the road. Whistle up the Consumer Products Safety Commission on the web and take a look at the things that can maim and kill you. It's impressive.

There is obviously some risk involved in skiing. Many skiers claim that this element of risk is an important, if not essential, part of skiing's appeal. But the bottom line for those who love it is that the joys and rewards of skiing far outweigh the risks. And just what are those risks? On any given day, injuries significant enough to require a visit to the doc occur to about one in every 400 skiers. Some of these injuries are relatively minor; some are not (see box, "The Injuries We Incur," below). What this means is that your chances of getting hurt while skiing are relatively low¿though not as low as for sports such as tennis and golf, which take place at slower speeds and in more controlled environments.

It is tempting to say, "Somebody should do something to make the sport more safe." Fact is, many ski-area and manufacturer somebodies are doing that. And so can you. Aside from the obvious things, such as skiing in control, there are several other steps you can take to tip the risk-reward ratio further in your favor.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to stop thinking quite so much like an American. We have an abiding faith in the "magic bullet" approach to problem solving. Worried about nuclear war? No problem. Let's throw some dollars at the Strategic Defense Initiative. Carrying a little extra weight? Try a new miracle diet. Don't want to get pregnant? Buy a pill.

Faith in the magic bullet is not completely misplaced. The cars that we drive today are safer than the ones we rode in 20 years ago. Better brakes, better tires, more crashworthy designs, with features like airbags that weren't available at any cost not so long ago. In skiing, improved bindings have reduced the rate of broken legs and ankles by nearly 90 percent.

To make skiing safer right now, though, you need to rely on yourself. For example, bindings aren't any sort of magic bullet when it comes to knee injuries. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself from skiing's most common injury, tearing an ACL, the knee's anterior cruciate ligament (see "Oh Knee, Oh My" in the related links above). And as effective as bindings are at protecting against lower-leg fractures, they could be even more effective if skiers serviced them as regularly as they do, say, their cars. Your release system¿skis, boots, bindings¿needs regular inspection and maintenance. (Why the boots, too? Because your boots, especially your boot soles, are an important part of that system. And boot-sole wear can change the way the system performs.) Manufacturers recommend this at least once a year. Yet this rarely happens. And without maintenance, that magic bullet for lower-leg injuries could be a dud. Researchers believe that perhaps three quarters of the lower-leg injuries they see could have been prevented if the release systems were functioning properly.

Unfortunately, most ski shops don't send out maintenance reminders like your Lexus dealer does. In fact, many shops aren't maintenance-oriented at all. You'll have to ask for the service that your binding manufacturer says your skis need (see "Check It Out," below).

Mostly, though, making the slopes safer will require more common-sense behavior on the part of skiers and snowboarders. If we take an active approach to managing the risks inherent in sliding down mountains, we can make the sport safer. The time-worn Responsibility Code (you know, that list of dos and don'ts that's printed on napkins at ski areas nationwide) makes a good touchstone. The Code boils down to: Pay attention, use common sense, be considerate of other skiers and snowboarders, and expecct that the skiers and snowboarders around you will do something unexpected. Case in point: Both snowboards and shaped skis have given snow sliders the means to turn in previously unimaginable ways. Attention and awareness, along with the personal steps and behavior modifications outlined here and in the following pages, can improve your margin of safety.

Happily, while these steps reduce skiing's risks, they don't reduce any of the rewards.


THE INJURIES WE INCUR

INJURY % OF ALL
REPORTED INJURIES
Serious knee sprains
(97% of which involve the ACL)
22%
All contusions
(bruises to any part of the body)
16%
Less serious knee sprains 10%
Lower leg
(fractures and sprains below the knee)
9%
Thumb 8%
Lacerations
(to any part of the body)
6%
Trunk
(torso injuries other than
contusions and lacerations)
4%
Broken collarbone 3%
Spine 3%
Muscle strains 2%
Concussions 1.5%
All other 15.5%


CHECK IT OUT
Many ski shops that tout themselves as full-service locations often aren't when it comes to your release system. Manufacturers don't emphasize routine maintenance and inspection, so the mechanics in the back room don't always get the training they need. One way to find service-oriented shops is to look for signs. In particular, signs and decals that say Check It Out and Performance Plus. These indicate shops that have attended the Ski and Snowboard Mechanics Workshops, which provide advanced training for mechanics. Shops that display these decals, and/or certificates from the workshops, have made a commitment to better, higher-quality equipment service.

For a list of shops that send their employees to the Mechanics Workshops, and for more information on safety issues generally, check out vermontskisafety.com.

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