Advocates of ski helmets draw line at laws requiring themWithin 10 years he would be competing in the X Games and the Olympics. But Mason Aguirre was just another 11-year-old snowboarder at Spirit Mountain when he took an unexpected tumble on Dec. 13, 1998.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Within 10 years he would be competing in the X Games and the Olympics. But Mason Aguirre was just another 11-year-old snowboarder at Spirit Mountain when he took an unexpected tumble on Dec. 13, 1998.
It wasn’t on a halfpipe, but from a chairlift.
“A lot of the kids don’t keep that bar (on the chairlift) down; they lift it up,” recalled his father, Michael Aguirre, in a telephone interview last month.
“When he leaned over, his hand slipped on the ice on the bar, and he went over — 40 feet, maybe? Thirty, 40 feet? It was high.”
Mason landed on his side and shoulder and head on ground that wasn’t snow-covered, said his dad, who wasn’t at the slope at the time but was filled in by witnesses. He suffered bruised ribs and a concussion.
In an e-mail, Mason Aguirre said all he remembers of the incident is falling from the chairlift and waking up in the hospital two days later.
But Michael Aguirre is convinced now, as he was then, that his son’s injuries would have been much worse if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet. It vindicated his policy with his children and the snowboard team he coached, he said.
“The rule was: No helmet, no snowboarding,” said Aguirre, whose family moved to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., when Mason was in his teens.
That was the rule, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the law, Aguirre said.
“How are you going to enforce that?” he asked.
Although Northlanders involved in downhill skiing and snowboarding advocate wearing helmets, there’s little enthusiasm for laws requiring helmet use. Those who oppose such a law argue that it would be difficult to enforce and that helmet use is becoming increasingly widespread anyway, without laws to require it.
Helmets in Jersey
In 2005, Italy became the first country to require children to wear helmets on the slopes — and to fine their parents if they don’t. Austria passed a similar law in 2009. Last year, a law went into effect in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia requiring everyone, children and adults, to wear helmets while skiing and snowboarding.
The only U.S. state to require helmets is New Jersey, where a law requiring skiers and snowboarders under 18 to wear helmets went into effect on Nov. 1, 2011.
The California Legislature passed ski helmet laws two years in a row, but it was vetoed both times — first by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger because it was attached to another bill he didn’t like, and the following year by Gov. Jerry Brown, who said he “opposed the transfer of authority from parents to the state,” according to an Associated Press report.
New Jersey state Sen. Anthony Bucco, a Republican, said in a telephone interview that he took over sponsorship of the bill after another senator retired. The driving force behind the legislation was a doctor whose daughter died in a skiing accident in 1988.
“It took me quite a few years to convince people in the Legislature that it was a good bill,” Bucco said.
It helped, he said, when the bill was changed to put the onus of enforcement on police rather than on the ski slopes.
Because of that change, the National Ski Areas Association supported the New Jersey law, said Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the trade group. It wouldn’t support a law requiring adults to wear helmets, he said, and it wouldn’t support a law putting ski areas in charge of enforcement. That would “open liability exposure” for the resorts, he said.
“But some ski areas do have their own, more-targeted ski-helmet requirements,” Byrd said.
For example, Vail and Aspen, two of the nation’s best-known ski resorts, both require their employees to wear helmets when skiing or riding.
Aguirre said he fought for a helmet-use policy during the short time when he sat on the board of the United States of America Snowboard Association. Some of the other board members opposed requiring helmets, Aguirre recalled, saying they didn’t want the sport to become “uncool” or lose its edge.
“I said, ‘This isn’t about “cool” and “edge,” ’ ” Aguirre related. “ ‘This is about having a kid grow up so he can say his ABCs in the morning.’ ”
Not a panacea
Although his organization encourages helmet use, Byrd said it’s not a panacea.
“It’s far more important to ski safely and responsibly than any one piece of equipment,” he said.
People in the skiing and snowboarding business who were interviewed for this story were generally skeptical about the idea of helmet laws, pointing out that helmet use has become common without laws requiring it.
“People don’t like to be legislated into doing something,” said Scott Neustel, owner of the Ski Hut.
Bob Roper, who volunteers on Ski Patrol at Chester Bowl and Spirit Mountain, said legislating helmet use might prove impractical.
“I strongly recommend helmets, but getting everyone to wear one … that’d be pretty tough,” he said.
Michael Aguirre said he’s thankful helmets have long been the law in his household. He credits them with minimizing injuries not only for Mason but also for his daughter, Molly, a former professional snowboarder who now is a nursing student in California.
Molly Aguirre went up a quarterpipe during one competition and fell backward, landing on her head. “And her helmet just split right up the middle, like a cracked egg,” he said.
She suffered a concussion, but it could have been much worse, Michael Aguirre said.
Mason Aguirre largely has avoided serious injuries in pro competition, although at 25 he’s probably in the twilight of his career, his dad said.
Seeing Mason and Molly and other pros on TV wearing helmets showed kids it was OK, even cool, for them to wear helmets, Michael Aguirre said.
“It probably saved a lot of kids a lot of brain damage,” Michael Aguirre said. “I’m just happy the way it ended up that it became accepted and it became a norm. … Now everybody’s wearing them. And they get to come home for dinner.”