California considering ski helmet law

Silas Chickering-Ayers sporting a helmet at Kirkwood, Calif. this winter. Megan Michelson

A California bill requiring minors to wear helmets while engaged in snow sports has been approved by the State Senate and could become a law before next winter.

Under Bill SB 105, parents will be fined $25 if their child under 18 does not wear a helmet while skiing and snowboarding at the state's resorts. Ski areas would also be required to post notification of the law on trail signs, websites, and elsewhere on their property.

Helmet laws are a popping up nationwide, with the first law created in New Jersey on April 6. In New York, the State Senate committees are considering a bill that would require children under 14 to wear helmets while skiing and riding. The Massachusetts General Assembly has a bill that would require ski areas to hand out helmets for free with all equipment rentals.

The California bill is authored by Senator Leland Yee, a Democrat representing San Francisco/San Mateo. It was passed by in the State Senate on April 25 by a 32-6 vote, and is awaiting consideration by the State Assembly before it goes to Governor Jerry Brown.

"At first, some people were a little skeptical," said Adam Keigwin, Yee's chief of staff. "As individuals have learned how helmets can prevent injury and save your life, they've warmed up to it."

Yee also authored an identical bill last year, SB 880, which was signed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but failed to be become law because it was contingent upon a vetoed companion bill requiring ski resorts to develop and publish safety plans.

Yee is a child psychologist with a history of introducing bills dealing with brain development. The bill is supported by the California Psychological Association, the American College of Pediatrics, and many other medical associations.

"[Yee] is a strong legislator here in California, a very good senator," said Bob Roberts, the executive director of the California Ski Areas Association. Roberts said his group helped Yee with technical knowledge during the bill-writing process, and he expects the bill to be signed into law by September. "Helmet use is a fact of life," Roberts said. "It can make a difference, so we support it."

Under the proposed bill, ski resorts will not be responsible for enforcement, a condition that Roberts said was important to the 29 ski resorts his organization represents. Instead, the law will be modeled after California's bike helmet law, which requires helmets for the activity but is not rigorously enforced.

"What it becomes is a standard," Roberts said. "It allows parents to say, 'Hey, you have to wear a helmet, it's the law.'" Roberts said that California resorts support the law, and that many already mandate that employees wear helmets if their job requires them to ski or ride. With the way the bill is written, resorts will not be liable if a child is injured while skiing or riding without a helmet.

Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, is a fan of the California helmet bill. "I would support it 100 percent," Cantu said. "Helmets prevent skull fractures and subdural hematomas ... People who are doing actions where they could hit a tree should wear a helmet."

The National Ski Areas Association recently released the findings of its 2011 National Demographic Study, which found that 60 percent of skiers and snowboarders wear helmets while practicing their sport, an increase of four percent from 2010 and a 140 percent increase since 2003. Among children aged 17 and younger, 74 percent wear helmets.