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When a helmeted 5-year-old boy survived a violent collision with a tree at Colorado's Aspen Highlands resort last spring, skiers across thenation felt the impact of the crash. The next day, the Aspen Skiing Company mandated that all ski school children ages 6 and under must wear helmets. No helmet, no lesson, no exceptions.

This season, the helmet requirement will extend to age 12. Aspen's mandatory helmet policy is believed to be the first of its kind, and it has spurred one of the most contentious issues confronting skiers today: Should children be required to wear helmets? "No question, the Aspen decision has ramped up the debate," says Alan Wilson, president of Vermont's Killington Resort.

Not since the deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy in 1998 has there been such rabid debate. It's such a sensitive subject that when a panel on helmet policy was held at a resort conference in May, journalists were kicked out. Ski areas nationwide are now reevaluating their own headgear policies. Most oppose Aspen's decision. "Forcing people to wear safety gear isn't the answer," says John Rice, general manager at Sierra-at-Tahoe, Calif., who recommends skiers make their own informed choices.

There is also a move to make ski helmets, like motorcycle and bicycle helmets, mandatory by law. New York and New Jersey legislators are considering bills that would require young skiers and boarders to strap on lids. Resorts would be fined for violations and could be shut down. "Once one state passes a law, it becomes easier for others to follow suit," says Geraldine Link, public policy director for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). "It's a domino effect we're hoping to avoid."

Before making the policy change, Aspen executives sought input from head-trauma experts and pediatricians, and met with lawyers, ski coaches and others to weigh the pros and cons. Should every child in the ski school be required to wear a helmet? Up to what age? How about expanding it to every child on the mountain? No resort, so far, has proposed mandatory helmets for adult skiers and boarders, but the logical extension is undeniable.

A month before Eliot Levmore's Highlands collision, a 5-year-old unhelmeted girl died after a similar crash at the same area. Eliot's survival with only a dented helmet and a concussion tipped the scales. "We feel these ski school kids are in our care, and we have to take care of them," explains Aspen Senior Vice President David Bellack. "Our policy benefits parents who are not informed about helmets." For those who don't own lids, Aspen rents them for $6 per day.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, in a 1999 report, said 11 deaths per year might be prevented with the use of helmets. The American Medical Association advocates the use of helmets by children and adolescents.

"We believe the advantages of helmets are obvious, but we still think it's an issue of parental choice," says Bill Jensen, chief operating officer at Vail Resorts, which sees 120,000 kids go through Vail's and Beaver Creek's ski schools in a season. A month after Aspen's decision, Vail announced it also will require helmets this season for ski school children up to age 14, although the policy differs in that parents will be allowed to sign an "opt-out" waiver.

The Aspen and Vail policies have made the most headlines, but most ski areas are moving toward a third option: education. "More likely than not, we will implement an improved educational policy," says Jeff Crowley, president of Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts, which has one of the most active youth programs in the country. "We will gear up with more helmets for rent and sale at discount."

The NSAA, which along with the National Ski Patrol opposes mandatory-helmet legislation, favors this approach. The organization launched the "Lids on Kids" campaign (www.lidsonkids.org) to encourage helmet use. Sales data show helmets' increasing popularity: A full 654,281 hellmets were sold last season; that's a 10-fold increase in six years.

Most states with ski areas have laws that define the sport as inherently risky, providing resorts with some protection from lawsuits by people who are injured. But helmet liability is a new legal frontier, and some industry officials worry that Aspen's decision will encourage lawyers to sue resorts that do not provide the same "standard of care."

This may already be occurring. Last April, the parents of a boy who struck a tree at Blue Mountain in Pennsylvania filed suit, claiming the area should have required helmets. The case is believed to be the first in which a resort's failure to require helmets was the basis for a negligence claim.Whatever the outcome of the great debate, some feel the future of skiing is set: "I wouldn't be surprised if in five or 10 years," says Crowley, "it's a mandatory-helmet sport."

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