As Snow Falls, Legislation Rises

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Three to 6 inches of new snow are expected in the next few hours to start falling in the local mountains--including Big Bear, where 5 feet of white stuff dumped during the last round of storms. Mammoth Mountain got 7 inches of fresh snow in the last 24 to add to its 8- to 12-feet base of packed powder. Sounds like the perfect time for the California Legislature to consider bills regulating skiers, snowboarders and ski resorts--and for two Orange County Republicans to cry "nanny government."

Separate bills in the state Senate and Assembly would require skiers and snowboarders under age 18 to wear helmets while zooming down mountains. Their sponsors, Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) and Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), argue that children already must wear a helmet to ride bicycles, skates, skateboards and non-motorized scooters under California law, so why not extend the safety regulations to the slopes?

Helmets cost about $40 to $160 to buy or can be rented for less than $10 a day at resorts and rental shops. Helping make the legislators' case is a 1998 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report that concluded 53 percent of ski and snowboard head injuries suffered by children under 15-2,600 of 4,950-could have been reduced or prevented by helmets.

Among those who support mandatory headgear is 29-year-old Costa Mesan Shelby Ganitch, who suffered a fall while snowboarding 11 years ago, without a helmet, that left her in a coma after which she had to relearn how to walk, talk, eat, feed and bathe herself. "Because I wasn't wearing a helmet, my life was changed forever," she told the Sacramento Bee.

But Ganitch's state senator, Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach), characterized the proposal as "kind of silly" in the same newspaper article. "I think it's overregulation," he said. "I'm sensitive to sometimes the government watching out for people, but people need to learn to take care of themselves, and look out for themselves."

Harman got an amen, brother from Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine), who said life and sport inevitably pose risk of injury and overzealous government, left unchecked, could eventually require thrill-seekers to cover themselves in bubble wrap. "Where do we stop?" he rhetorically asked the Bee.

Yee's bill, which would simply mirror bicycle helmet laws by imposing a $25 fine on parents whose kids fail to comply with the law, is supported by the California Ski Industry Association because it is aimed at parents and not the California and Nevada ski resorts the lobby represents.

The same cannot be said of Jones' proposal, which goes much farther. It aims to establish across-the-board safety rules, including a standardized system for safety padding on lifts and other equipment at resorts. It would require signs marking ski boundaries and hazards such as cliffs. Operators would have to enforce the helmet requirement for minors under the law, which would also make it a crime for employees to fail to wear a helmet repeatedly.

The legislation would pose a huge legal risk for resorts and is also unnecessary and unreasonable because operators often don't learn the true extent of skiers' injuries because of privacy laws, Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The association also questions "why, when the state has a $20 billion budget deficit, they are paying so much attention to something that, when you talk to most winter sport participants, they know the risks and are comporting accordingly," Roberts added.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on either bill.


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