Studying terrain park injuries

Sure, a lot of people get hurt in terrain parks. But not as many as you may think, according to one researcher. Stef Cande/Shazamm/ESPN Images

New research has found that terrain parks may not be as dangerous as people think. Despite the proliferation of terrain parks at ski areas over the last 20 years, the injury rate amongst skiers has actually decreased in that time frame, in large part due to new, safer ski equipment.

Skiing now sees approximately two injuries for every 1,000 skier visits, down from eight injuries per 1,000 visits in the late 1960s. Among those who wear a helmet, the incidence of head injuries has been reduced by as much as 50 percent, according to various studies. The number of annual ski-related inbounds deaths has remained steady at about 40.

Next May, Jasper Shealy, a professor emeritus at New York's Rochester Institute of Technology and a co-author of this study, will be presenting these findings at an International Society for Skiing Safety conference at Keystone, Colo.

"Some people have this view that terrain parks are the work of the devil," said Shealy, who's been studying ski-related injuries for the past 40 years. "But what we're finding is if you go back 20 years ago, virtually no resort had a terrain park. And today, virtually everywhere has one. Despite this increase, the overall injury rate has actually continued to go down and the fatality rate has remained steady. If terrain parks are all that bad, why haven't these injury rates gone up?"

But the injuries that do occur in terrain parks, Shealy says, are more serious than injuries sustained outside the terrain park. The most catastrophic injuries take place on table top jumps, not rails or boxes, so that's where Shealy has focused his research. He's set up measuring devices and laser speed radars on table top jumps at resorts like Mammoth, Big Bear, Vail Resorts and they're looking to measure parks in the East like Killington and Stratton.

"The most common set of events that leads to fatality or catastrophic injuries is when skiers or snowboarders are jumping a table top or table top-like feature and the person gets in the back seat, then lands on the back of their head or back of their neck or shoulders and they suffer a serious or fatal spinal cord injury," Shealy says.

The best way to reduce the likelihood of these types of injuries, Shealy says, is to practice jumping on smaller jumps and sign up for a lesson to learn proper jumping technique.

"Jumping, whether you like it or not, is part of the sport. So resorts should provide a relatively safe place to jump, places with jumps designed and maintained by experienced personnel," Shealy says. "When you think about the potential for injury in skiing and snowboarding -- how fast you're going and so forth -- it's amazing there aren't more injuries."