The Big Question: Is skiing now so dangerous that speed limits should be imposed?
Thursday 15 January 2009
Why are we asking this now?
A Swiss insurance firm, Suva, has put its weight behind a campaign to reduce the speed at which skiers descend the mountain. As skiing becomes more popular, as resorts expand their accommodation but not necessarily their skiing areas, and as the pistes become faster and more crowded, accidents are on the increase.
How big a problem are collisions on the slopes?
The emergency services in Austria, Germany and Switzerland agree that not only are there more speed-related accidents, but that the injuries incurred are more serious, and that fatalities are inevitable. Suva's research revealed that skiers can reach up to 44mph when descending, the kind of speed when the slightest misjudgment can be very bad news indeed – for the skier, and especially for anyone in the skier's way.
Advances in equipment technology and the rise of the harder-to-control snowboard are among other factors contributing to the trend. And although fatal collisions are rare, they always heighten anxieties, such as the incident on New Year's Day in southern Austria in which a mother of four and a German politician, Dieter Althaus, collided, leaving her dead and with him seriously injured. This came a week after a 16-year-old Italian was remanded in custody after a collision with a 51-year-old man in the Dolomites. The boy failed to stop and two days after the incident the man died.
So has skiing become very high-risk?
It's all relative. There are no overall statistics on skiing injuries across the world, but individual studies suggest people's fears may be exaggerated. The Aviemore-based sports injury research facility ski-injury.com reports that only 1.74 alpine skiers per 1,000 will sustain an injury, so statistically it's safer than a game of football. In addition, only 10 per cent of skiing injuries are caused through collisions. Most are caused by the skier either falling over, or skiing into a tree or other object.
How hard is it to avoid skiing into someone?
Most accidents happen when people get tired, so the last run of the day is traditionally quite busy for emergency services. Even on the widest of skiing motorways, it is very possible to collide with another skier – spatial awareness is a key element to mastering alpine skiing. Certain resorts have "pinch points" where a lot of traffic passes at the end of the day as people funnel down the mountain, and when boy racers lose patience and decide to queue-jump the orderly procession, people get knocked over.
Are there too many people on the slopes?
According to the Ski Club of Great Britain (SCGB), since 2001 the total snowsports travel market has increased by 23 per cent. That's nearly a quarter additional skiers using, in many cases, the same acreage of space. In many resorts, it is simply not possible to create more runs, as the land is often privately owned, belongs to protected national parks, or doesn't have the right topography to allow for easy access. Last season was a bumper year for skiers, with superb snow conditions across much of Europe and North America; to this end, some 1.35m travellers headed for the slopes, an increase of three per cent on the previous season. This season is heading the same way.
Are helmets the answer?
At the moment, there is no law on wearing a "lid" on the slopes, but the SCGB recommends that children under 13 wear one, and leaves it up to the discretion of the individual from there on up. The helmet has become a fashion statement in recent years, and is used by all professional freeriders and boarders, who spend their entire time jumping out of helicopters in the most remote ski fields in the world. By wearing one you can associate with this romanticism, even if you never stray from the piste, so this is a force for good. Having said that, the helmet does lead some people to think that they can take more risks as they are protected, so it leads to a false sense of security.
Why are boarders and skiers such a combustible mix?
This could be the subject of its own Big Question, but generally the two approach the mountain in two entirely different ways. A skier has to have attained a level of proficiency in order to tackle the slopes that a snowboarder will not have had to. In short, there are more "bad" amateur snowboarders who take to the slopes than there are "bad" amateur skiers. Snowboards – which attract the younger and possibly more reckless thrill-seeker – simply don't have the same control and grip as two, independently controlled skis, and without a set of poles, a boarder who wants a rest simply sits down, which makes them less visible and therefore more vulnerable to potential collision. Some resorts in the US, such as Deer Valley in Utah, have a no-boarders rule.
Is anything being done to make skiing safer?
The Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) has Ten Rules of Conduct for skiers and boarders around the world. Crucially it requires individuals to keep within their speed limits, and for skiers coming from behind to make sure they give enough space to the skier below so as not to endanger them. Quite a lot is down to commonsense, such as making sure that you look before joining a piste, remove yourself to the side of the piste if you have a fall, and assist others who may be in trouble.
In most North American and Canadian resorts, and many European resorts, ski instructors have the power to confiscate ski passes from users who they see as travelling downhill in a way that is likely to endanger others. In the US, they will also bust you if they think you are skiing under the influence of alcohol.
When are the slopes at their safest?
Away from school holidays, and over lunchtimes. In France – by far the most popular destination for UK skiers and snowboarders – many of its schools have a half-term that coincides with the English half-term beginning 16 February. So best to keep an extra look-out if you're going then.
What else should every skier know?
While the chances are that you are not going to do or get caught in an avalanche, going off-piste always carries dangers for the inexperienced. Modern skis have become fatter and encourage use off-piste, but the skills to use them often don't match up. This is when people get into trouble, when they are caught in terrain that they don't understand, without a guide and without adequate safety equipment. The truth is that you should never venture off-piste without a guide, no matter what the conditions, and certainly never alone. Chances are you don't know the mountain well enough.
Always be aware of skiers and boarders in front of you, and never stop at pinch points. Never go for that last little jump on your final run down. Never drink too much at lunchtime. And always take out winter sports insurance.
So is it time skiers were forced to slow down?
* Too many people think they can strap on snowboard and rule the red runs. They need to be taught a lesson
* Even if there is only one fatality a year resulting from a collision, that is too many
* Skiing is supposed to be an enjoyable pastime – on the piste everyone should abide by the rules
* People who choose to go on the slopes know the risks and can take responsibility for themselves
* The overwhelming majority of skiers are unlikely to injure themselves or others
* Whatever next? Prosecution because of a bit of harmless queue-barging?
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