Safety equipment: It’s what’s up top that counts
It was a sunny, warm afternoon when Benny Chi Pang Chow, of Berkeley, Calif., skied the last trail of his life.
Chow, who was vacationing with friends, was skiing alone Sunday when he crashed into a tree on the slopes of Northstar-at-Tahoe.
After performing CPR for more than an hour, ski patrol pronounced the 45-year-old man dead at 1:45 p.m. A coroner’s report, due to be released midweek, should clarify the cause of death. Since there were no witnesses, no one will ever know the details of how Chow lost control on a day when conditions were clear and the slopes newly groomed.
Chow’s death corresponds rather eerily with the release of a study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommending that skiers and snowboarders wear helmets to reduce injuries and save lives.
The study, released Friday, concludes that helmets used by skiers and snowboarders could prevent or reduce the severity of 44 percent of head injuries to adults and 53 percent of head injuries to children under age 15.
“The cause of death has not yet been released. But no, he was not wearing a helmet,” said Erin Bernall, communications manager at Northstar, referring to Chang.
The CPSC study estimates that 7,700 injuries – including 2,600 head injuries to children – could be prevented or reduced in severity each year with the use of snowboarding and skiing helmets. There were 17,500 head injuries associated with skiing and snowboarding in 1997.
Helmet use could also prevent about 11 of the 24 deaths from skiing and snowboarding each year, the commission found. Nevertheless, experts say helmets are not a substitute for responsible skiing and riding.
“The decision to wear a helmet is a matter of personal choice,” Bernall said. “We view helmets as a safety precaution, but the No. 1 thing we tell people is that they need to ski and board in control and within the parameters of their own ability levels.”
Snowboarding injuries nearly tripled and head injuries caused by snowboarding increased fivefold in the past few years. These sobering numbers will hopefully be addressed by recent efforts requiring snowboard and ski team members to wear helmets during practice and competition.
“Everyone wears them on the team,” said Brady Gunsch, Sierra Educational Foundation snowboard coach, during a practice session at the half-pipe at Sierra-at-Tahoe. “It’s the cool thing in middle school. It’s the older ones – the ones who’ve been doing it for a long time – who have a hard time wearing them.”
Although very few skiers and snowboarders wear helmets, more people are opting for the headgear, partly because of last year’s deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy.
“I bought a helmet mainly because they got killed,” said Phil Campbell of San Diego. “I’m a senior skier but I do trees sometimes, and I like speed, so I thought it couldn’t hurt to buy one.”
Most ski and snowboard equipment stores sell helmets which cost between $30 and $150. Area resorts rent them out for about $5 a day.
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