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It's time for skier education and safety codes to be taken seriously

The overall injury rate of skiers has decreased dramatically since the '60s. But two skiing fatalities in New Hampshire last week (at Cannon and Loon mountains) point up critical safety concerns at ski areas today. According to industry data, the incidence of serious or fatal injuries has increased in recent years despite the drop in overall mishaps. The National Ski Areas Association, in fact, says that for the first time the dollar amount of downhill skiing accident claims exceeds that of all other ski accident claims.

One result of all this is an increase in calls for more and better skier safety education, and stricter adherence to existing skier safety codes.

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While certainly not risk-free, skiing has proven itself to be a relatively safe sport for people of all ages -- from post-toddlers to senior citizens. Even those challenged by physical handicaps are among millions of skiers who pursue their sport with a sensible amount of judgment, confidence, and enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, the picture of an invigorating outdoor winter pastime has been frequently clouded in recent years, and some of the negative images just won't go away. To wit: crowded slopes; inconsiderate skiers bombing down trails regardless of the number of people below them; and skiers cruising at excessive speeds for their ability and/or the snow conditions.

These ski-scene negatives could be compounded if some smaller areas had to close because liability insurance became prohibitive. While that's probably unlikely, changing liability law and recent multimillion-dollar jury awards to skiing plaintiffs makes the possibility a real one.

It's generally agreed that more skier education is needed, and in the past couple of years the industry has put out a bombardment of skier safety codes, leaflets, films, and public service announcements.

Ski areas today, on the one hand, try to market the quality of their trail grooming and snow conditions, and on the other hand warn skiers there are risks involved. Maybe one result is that people don't take the warnings too seriously. For example, trees and rocks have been principal culprits in serious ski mishaps, yet most of us will shoot down the side of a trail hardly a ski pole away from many trees and rocks. As National Ski Patrol executive director Steve Over has said, automobile drivers or even joggers aren't likely to skirt trees. Skiers, meanwhile, move a lot faster than joggers -- and with much less protection than drivers.

But is more than education needed? A few states require lift towers to be padded. But lift towers have been involved in a low percentage of accidents. And to avoid problems such as freezing rock-hard, today's tower padding possibly should consist of special new plastics or safety nets.

Ski instructors and ski patrollers are being asked to take a stronger educational role in skier safety. And some ski areas gingerly mention stronger enforcement of the safety code by ski patrols. But will area managements vigorously support patrollers who yank the lift tickets of wealthy condominium owners or their families? And are ski patrols adequately prepared for such police functions? Already a patroller reportedly has lost a court case involving an alleged assault by an angry skier who didn't appreciate having his lift ticket yanked.

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It's clear that if we don't want posted speed limits, radar-equipped ski patrols, and mandatory helmets, skiers would be wise to follow that skier safety code.

Meanwhile, a few tips worth remembering: Don't ski near snowmaking guns, grooming machines, towers, trees, or other obstacles. Don't ski recklessly or uncontrolled. Don't ski fast where slopes are relatively crowded or in slow speed zones used by beginners. And don't use head phones except in designated areas, such as a practice slope for freestyle ballet. It's hard to hear a skier behind you when you're surrounded in stereo.

The sap is already starting to run in parts of southern Vermont. It takes about 40 gallons to make one gallon of maple syrup. If you've never seen it boiled down or tasted the end product right out of a tap in a smoky sugarhouse -- or maybe poured over a snowball at the end of a spring slalom race -- well, get thee ``upcountry'' soon for a singular taste treat. There are various maple sugar festivals coming up in northern New England and elsewhere over the next couple of months. Some we know of are at Gunstock, N.H. (March 15-17), St. Albans, Vt., (April 12-14), and St. Johnsbury, Vt. (April 19-21). The Vermont Travel Division (134 State St., Montpelier, Vt. 05602) will supply a brochure of sugarhouses open to the public and a map on request.

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