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Helmet Nation: California almost sure to pass new mandate

California's proposed helmet mandate will almost certainly become law. And there is more skid lid legislation looming in Massachusetts and New York. SNEWS takes a look at whether everyone is about to be required to wear a helmet on the slopes.

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Putting lids on children is already standard fare for U.S. skiers. The National Ski Areas Association recently reported that 91 percent of the kids 9 years old or younger who ski and snowboard are already wearing helmets. But lawmakers from New Jersey to California still seem set on legislating helmet use.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a law on April 6, 2011, which makes helmet use mandatory for skiers and snowboarders under the age of 18. Starting this fall, parents or guardians of “un-helmeted” minors could be fined up to $25. And, now, a similar law in California looks sure to pass. On April 25, the California State Senate voted 32-to-6 to approve legislation identical to New Jersey’s. A similar measure was signed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in September 2010, but then vetoed because of a companion bill that would have required for safety plans to be published by ski resorts. 

Now the bill has been introduced as a standalone measure. And as SB 105’s author, Senator Leland Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco told SNEWS®, “If a Republican governor can sign that bill, I think a governor who is a Democrat can also sign it.”

Yee, who is a child psychologist, said he expected current Governor Jerry Brown to sign SB 105 sometime in September 2011, one year after Schwarzenegger first vetoed its predecessor. He said he realized actual enforcement of the bill will be difficult, “unless there are a lot of police and sheriffs in those ski area jurisdictions with a lot of extra time on their hands.” But he said he wanted to give parents an extra tool in getting kids to wear helmets “because the law requires it.” 

The California Ski Areas Association has been a strong supporter of the bills, both because of the safety aspect and also because “resorts did not have any enforcement responsibility,” according to Executive Director Bob Roberts. In an e-mail to SNEWS, Roberts said he also expects the governor to sign the bill. “In his previous term he vetoed very few bills,” Roberts wrote. “This being uncontested, it would be extraordinary if he did not sign it. It would take effect January 1, 2012.”

But the question remains, with helmet use already so prevalent on the slopes, why do so many lawmakers seem to feel it’s necessary to mandate their use? The 2011 NSAA National Demographic Study reports that in addition to the findings that 91 percent of the kids 9 and under skiing and snowboarding are already wearing helmets, 74 percent of those 17 years old and younger are wearing helmets, as are 60 percent of all the riders on the slopes. Even helmet manufacturers overwhelmingly prefer letting usage be a personal choice. As Tag Kleiner of Smith told SNEWS, “We’re happy with the way the market has expanded through organic growth.” 

Championing legislation that protects kids has always been good PR for politicians, though, and Yee certainly hopes his bill “will be a model for other states.” As similar legislation is being introduced across the country, he may get his wish. That is if usage doesn’t become ubiquitous first.

“We currently have active helmet legislation pending in California, Massachusetts, and New York,” said Dave Byrd, director of education and risk for NSAA. “But given the increase in helmet usage, especially the high usage among children, the need for helmet legislation diminishes as we are reaching saturation levels of helmet usage among children.” 

In a kind of horse race between laws and consumer adoption, Byrd said he thinks the market will make the mandates moot. Yee wants to make sure of it. “When you read the statistics, and see that severe brain injuries can be reduced by half if you wear a helmet, it seems common sense that everyone should be wearing one,” Yee said. “So I think this is something that is long overdue. It’s a bill that will raise the level of compliance to a near perfect level. And I think the reality is it’s going to create greater compliance in all states.”

— Peter Kray

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