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Manufacturers critical of New Jersey ski helmet mandate

A new law in New Jersey will make helmet use mandatory for anyone under the age of 18 on the slopes next season. While that may help provide a short-term bump in helmet sales, helmet manufacturers still aren't very excited about it. SNEWS finds out why not.

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The Brain Injury Association of New Jersey may be applauding the Legislature’s decision to create a law that mandates helmet use for skiers and snowboarders under the age of 18, but it’s got many snowsports helmet manufacturers up in arms against it.

“I’d say this is a lot of the cart before the horse,” said Kirsten Andrae, general manager of Briko North America. “I’d like to see laws about what constitutes a good helmet first. There is still a hell of lot of leeway between what is sold as a helmet in this country and what is good protection for your child’s head.”

The law, which N.J. Gov. Chris Christie signed on April 6, 2011, will go into effect on Nov. 1, just before the 2011-12 ski season starts. Enforcement of the law is up to each minor’s parent or guardian, who could be fined up to $25 for every kid without a lid.

Despite earlier attempts to make ski helmets mandatory in California and Illinois, and an ongoing attempt in New York, Jersey is now the first state to pass such a law in the U.S. In explaining why he thought the law was necessary, State Senator Anthony Bucco, the bill’s sponsor, told ESPN, “We protect them on bikes with helmet laws. Why not protect them on ski slopes.”

Just days after the bill was signed, Barbara Geiger, president of The Brain Injury Association of New Jersey, published an op-ed in the New Jersey Record saying the association “would like to applaud all sponsors of this bill,” and adding that, “It is through their leadership that the lives of young skiers can be saved.”

At Briko, Andrae said she thinks that kind of feel-good reaction to any bill that purports to save lives or reduce injuries is going to encourage lawmakers in other states, and that similar laws are likely to be forthcoming. But she thinks that most of the sponsors of those types of bills are “creating a false sense of security when they should really be asking just what kinds of helmets people are putting on their kids–there are certainly things people can buy that can be considered helmets right now, but that offer about as much protection as a baseball cap.”

Other helmet manufacturers were equally concerned about what kind of precedent New Jersey may be setting, especially if in other states the ski areas themselves are required to enforce helmet use.

“I just don’t think it’s something that’s worthy of legislation,” said Keith D’Entremont at Uvex. “On a personal level, I think there are a lot more pressing issues legislators should be paying attention to, instead of trying to be my nanny on the slopes. Professionally, I think the more protection gear we require people to wear, the more we are pushing them away from the sport.”

D’Entremont believes the law will create a short-term increase in helmet sales, but argues that most kids are already wearing them, and that it’s overkill to mandate their use. But POC USA President Jarka Duba, who likes to compare helmets to seatbelts, said it only reinforces the message most helmet manufacturers already market.

“Those of us that work in the helmet industry see testimonials every week from people that feel lucky to have survived due to their helmet. We believe that helmets, like seatbelts, can reduce or prevent injury,” Duba said. “Will this impact the business? Absolutely. Is it good for the helmet manufacturers? Sure. Is it better for the kid that crashes and walks away? Much.”

The fact that New Jersey is such a tiny ski market, consisting of only the Mountain Creek, Campgaw and Hidden Valley ski areas, should provide a well-watched test case for the industry as these kinds of laws continue to be proposed and debated in other states.

“Lots of states are trying to get a helmet law passed. New Jersey is the first,” said recreational attorney Jim Moss, who publishes regular legal updates on the outdoor industry at “The ski areas did not fight it because the burden is on the parents, not the ski area.”

When asked to forecast how the new law might impact the ski industry, Moss was not optimistic. He said that based on how helmet laws have impacted other industries in the past, new laws could result in less participants.

“Skiing will drop,” Moss said. “Every time a helmet law is put in place use drops.”

–Peter Kray

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