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New helmet law for youth skiers and snowboarders
This is my site Written by CPorterEsq on April 22, 2011 – 3:12 pm

Earlier this month, New Jersey became the first state to require youths under age 18 wear a helmet while skiing or snowboarding in New Jersey. The law is the first statewide requirement for ski/ride helmets and will take effect on effect Nov. 1 – just in time for the 2011-2012 season.

As a former bicycle industry employee and avid participant in many activities where a helmet can be life-saving (motorcycling, bike riding, skiing, and climbing), I’m familiar with debates over whether we should or shouldn’t wear helmets while recreating and whether the government should or shouldn’t mandate their use. Since we have a lot of ski resorts and skiers in Washington who may or may not want to see a law like this enacted in our state, I thought I’d take a look at it and offer my impressions.

First, New Jersey’s law delegates to “parent(s), legal guardian(s), or adult(s) acting in a supervising position” the duty to ensure that minors comply with the law. In other words, adults will pay the price if children under their care ski or snowboard without a helmet. The term “adult in a supervising position” is undefined. If you think about it, the term is probably broad enough to include school, youth, or church group leaders, ski bus chaperons, and ski instructors. Additionally, parents who bring their children’s friends on ski trips to New Jersey ski resorts might fall within the scope of “supervising adults.” Finally, there’s the question of who the “supervising adult” is when a 16- or 17-year old drives himself to the slopes sans parent.

A first offense carries a $25 fine, with a maximum penalty of $100 for subsequent offenses. Local police departments, not the ski resorts, will bear responsibility for enforcing the law. (I don’t know about you, but this conjures visions of “Snow Cops” carding young skiers and snowboarders in the lift line and chasing after young kids as they bomb down the slopes without their helmet on. Then when the Snow Cop catches someone who should have a helmet on, they have to ask them where there mom is, so they can issue a ticket.)

All kidding aside, by making supervising adults responsible for compliance and the police department responsible for enforcement, the New Jersey law essentially relieves resort operators of any responsibility. The law also includes an express carveout, which unambiguously protects ski resort operators from liability in connection with the new law.

At last check, California, Illinois, and New York had or were considering similar laws, but not Washington. Should we?

There’s no question: helmets prevent injuries, and mandatory helmet use would cut the societal cost of those injuries. (In January, Morristown Memorial Hospital completed a study of last year’s skiing and snowboarding season, finding helmet usage doesn’t prevent serious injuries in high-speed, catastrophic crashes. The hospital did find, however, that protective headgear prevents between 30 and 50 percent of injuries in wipeouts at moderate speed.)

On the other hand, placing enforcement responsibility on already tapped law enforcement agencies with far bigger problems to deal with seems like a recipe for non-enforcement.

Even with enforcement unlikely, having such a law for minors emphasizes to parents that society recognizes that they are responsible for the safety of their children. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

What do you think? Should Washington adopt such a law? How would it impact your business?

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