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Colorado rejects effort to require ski areas to report injuries

Senate Bill 184 would have forced resorts to be transparent
Ski patrollers tend to an injured skier in Vail’s Game Creek Bowl on Dec. 11.

Colorado state lawmakers on Thursday killed a bill that would have required ski areas to publish ski injury statistics and safety plans.

The Colorado Senate’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee heard from more than 40 witnesses over three hours Thursday, many pleading for the passage of Senate Bill 184. They also heard from ski industry representatives who urged the committee to reject the Ski Areas Safety Plans and Accident Reporting Act.

Ultimately, the five-member committee of two Republicans and three Democrats voted 4-1 to kill the bill. The lone vote to advance the measure came from Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat and prime sponsor of the legislation.

Denver’s Danilda Polanco, whose 18-year-old nephew Etthan Mañon died skiing at Echo Mountain in December, said requiring resorts to report accidents is “a no brainer.”

“We are here to try to prevent other families from going through the horror we had to experience as a family,” said Polanco, describing how a ski patroller told her family that accidents like what happened to her nephew “happen all the time.”

“If this happens all the time, why hasn’t something been done? It’s because of a lack of transparency,” she said.

Lynda Weston Taylor’s 27-year-old son Jason Taylor died after striking a tree at Keystone ski area in January 2016.

“I urge you, Colorado, to do better,” she said. “And to lead with safety.”

Pat Campbell, the president of Vail Resorts’ 37-resort mountain division and a 35-year veteran of the resort industry, said requiring ski resorts to publish safety reports “is not workable” and would create an “unnecessary burden, confusion and distraction.”

Skiers don’t ask for safety plans, Campbell said. But they like skier safety education messaging and seeing safety and ski patrollers on the slopes. They appreciate signage noting family areas and slow-skiing zones, she said.

Requiring resorts to publish public safety plans, she said, would “trigger a massive administrative effort” that could redirect resort work from other safety measures.

“Publishing safety plans will not inform skiers about our work or create a safer ski area,” Campbell said.

Danielson, the state lawmaker pushing for the new policy, blasted the ski industry’s argument that reporting injuries would be inconvenient and an administrative burden, saying she was siding with the families who lost loved ones on the slopes.

“When we approached the ski areas to work on any of the details in the bill, they refused,” said Danielson, who sponsored the bill with Democratic Sen. Tammy Story, of Conifer. “They refused to tell us what about this bill was unacceptable prior to today. It makes me wonder what it is that they are hiding. It seems to me that an industry that claims to have safety as a top priority would be interested in sharing the information about injuries on their mountains.”

Don Fisher, a physician, told the committee that systematic data collection, reporting and analysis “become routine and simplified over short periods of time” when industries adopt new levels of safety. He said safety improvements have reformed industries like health care, oil and gas production, mining, chemical production, public utilities and consumer products.

“Senate Bill 184 is a good start to help make the Colorado ski industry a world leader in attracting skiers and riders,” Fisher said.

Chris Romer, the president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership who was representing a coalition of chambers and tourism groups, said requiring Colorado to be the only one of 37 ski states to report injuries would be “a self-imposed black eye” that could damage the state’s ski communities and tourism industry.

Larissa Wilder, who directs the 1,500-member Parents for Safe Skiing group, also opposed the bill, arguing that more direct interactions with resorts can yield effective safety changes.

“This bill implies it is the consumer’s responsibility to sift through thousands of pieces of data to best determine which inherent risks they are willing to consume,” Wilder said.

Jordan Lipp, an attorney with the Colorado Civil Justice League who represents ski areas in injury lawsuits, said national injury statistics tend to show beginner skiers suffer injuries more often than advanced skiers, so smaller ski areas that attract beginners could be harmed by reporting numbers.

Melanie Mills, president and CEO of the 22-resort Colorado Ski Country trade association, said ski areas already collect, analyze and report ski injury data. The National Ski Areas Association will issue its fifth 10-year study of ski injuries this summer. That peer-reviewed study looks at injury rates, changes over time, types of injuries and types of skiers injured.

“No other recreational sport is better researched and studied than skiing,” Mills said.

Kim Hart said her 86-year-old father, Richard Hart, was killed “by a reckless snowboarder” at Copper Mountain in March 2020. She sought more information about the collision and was unable to learn any details, she said.

“This (bill) will strengthen our ski industry, not weaken it,” she said.

Russ Rizzo, the statewide director of Safe Slopes Colorado and a longtime skier teaching his two young sons to ski, described his group finding “an undeniable chorus of support for common-sense answers we are discussing today.”

Rizzo said his group’s request for injury statistics from ski industry groups like Colorado Ski Country yielded nothing.

“They flat out told us they have zero interest in engaging in transparency,” Rizzo said.

New statistics provided last year by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment show as many as 55 skiers and snowboarders arrive at Colorado emergency departments every day of the ski season. The CDPHE numbers showed 4,151 skiers and snowboarders transported to emergency rooms in ambulances or helicopters in 2018, 2019 and the first part of 2020, which is about 10 patients every day of the season.

Stephanie Stevenson’s husband, Paul, a neurosurgeon, was killed following a collision with another skier at Snowmass ski area in March 2014. He suffered multiple injuries. A surgeon told Stevenson her husband’s injuries “were like he had been hit by a Mack truck.”

“If a truck had hit him, we would have had more information about what happened,” she told the committee on Thursday, describing the challenges of learning details about the collision that killed her husband. “We don’t trust that Colorado ski resorts are really doing all they can to prevent accidents.”

Stevenson said she and her daughter recently went hiking in Utah’s Zion National Park and came across a sign that warned hikers of dangers ahead. The sign noted how many hikers had died while traversing that trail.

“That sign made us choose a different trail,” she said. “It didn’t make us not want to hike.”

Chris Arnis stretches December 12, 2020, at his Steamboat Springs home. Arnis received a C-4 spinal cord injury after crashing March 15, 2015, at Steamboat Resort.

Chris Arnis from Steamboat Springs described a crash at the Steamboat ski area that left him a quadriplegic after he slammed through ruts left by a lift line maze that had been removed before the resort closed.

“There is no transparency. I asked for some information and I got a small piece of paper with tons of misinformation,” said Arnis, a former All American collegiate skier and local ski coach. “I love this sport. My kids still ski. My ex-wife still skis. But ... I’m done.”

Dr. Dan Gregorie, the founder of the national SnowSport Safety Foundation, lost a daughter at a California ski area 14 years ago in what he called “a preventable accident.” He said ski injury reporting by resorts would make the ski industry “ safer” and “stronger.”

“It is incomprehensible that Colorado law requires amusement parks to report injuries and accidents while there is no statistics on injuries at ski areas statewide,” Gregorie said.

Rana Dershowitz, the co-chief operating officer at Aspen Skiing Co.’s four Roaring Fork Valley ski areas, refuted “fundamental flaws” in the legislation’s suggestion that resorts are not taking safety seriously. Safety is a “core component” of every aspect of Aspen Skiing Co.’s operation and training for safety is an ongoing enterprise in a “dynamic environment with conditions changing often by the hour,” she said.

The specific injury reporting provisions of Senate Bill 184 “seeks to shift the longstanding and thoughtful balance of the current Ski Safety Act,” she said.

“Instead of respecting trained professionals, whose entire careers are about supporting a safe ski experience, we would tell them to turn their focus away from the complex interplay of what is happening on our mountains to ensure that they are collecting dozens of specific and potentially irrelevant data points,” Dershowitz said. “We want our ski patrols focused on actually monitoring mountain safety.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.