Skiing is among safest of sports despite deaths of celebrities

Sonny Bono, the American pop singer-turned-congressman who has been killed in a skiing accident at an American resort, is the second celebrity to die on the slopes in less than a week. Nevertheless, as Kathy Marks reports, skiing remains one of the least dangerous sports.

It was a chilling echo of the death last week in in Aspen, Colorado of Michael Kennedy, son of the late Robert F Kennedy.

Sonny Bono, half of the Sonny and Cher duo who had a string of hits in the 1960s and 1970s, was killed when he collided with a tree at the Heavenly Ski Resort, on the Nevada-California state border, south of Reno.

Bono, 62, a Republican Congressman for California, was an avid and proficient skier. His body was found on Monday evening, two hours after he was reported missing.

Bono, who had skied at the sprawling resort for more than 20 years, was on a family holiday with his wife, Mary Whitaker, and their two children. He had skied on ahead, leaving the main trail to ski through a wooded area, when the accident happened. His wife raised the alarm when the resort closed at at 4.30pm.

Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives, said yesterday that Bono would be much mourned by Republicans. He spoke of his "wonderful public service career", saying he had brought to it "a unique sense of talents and understanding from his celebrity days".

His former wife, Cher, who was in London to open the Harrods January sale today, cancelled her appearance and flew to Los Angeles in order to be with the couple's daughter, Chastity, a campaigner for gay rights.

Bono's death, following so quickly after that of Kennedy, 39, who also hit a tree, sent a shiver through the skiing industry, which has attracted record numbers of British enthusiasts this season.

But despite the publicity given to these two high-profile deaths, and a perception that skiing has become progressively more dangerous, it actually claims few lives compared to other participator sports. Lethal accidents almost always happen when skiers leave safe areas.

Dr Michael Turner, chief medical adviser to the British Ski and Snowboard Federation, who has compiled statistics on the relative dangers of different sports, says that downhill skiing has an injury rate of just 2.6 per 1,000 participant days - roughly the same risk as table tennis, and half that of golf.

Rugby, on the other hand, with an injury rate of 95.7 per 1,000, and soccer, at 64.4, are far more perilous. Angling accounts for more deaths in Britain each year than any other outdoor activity - seven lives, compared to five for horse riding, five for mountaineering, three for parachuting, two for hang gliding and two for fell walking.

David Hearns, spokesman for the Ski Club of Great Britain, said the vast majority of fatal accidents occur off-piste, with about half of them caused by avalanches. The remainder take place when skiers fall off a precipice or over the edge of a ravine, or hit a tree, pylon or hut. Collisions between skiers are extremely rare.

Obituary, page 17, and David Aaronovitch, page 19