The rest of the story, article by Martin Griff
A father continues his fight for ski-helmet bill
It's difficult to disagree with Dr. Norman San Agustin. Back in 1988, his only child, 12-year-old daughter Nikki, died from head injuries she sustained in a ski accident at the Hidden Valley ski resort in Vernon.
Since then, Dr. San Agustin, a trauma surgeon from Morristown, has been pushing to get the New Jersey state Legislature to pass a law requiring mandatory helmets for children under age 14 while they ski or snowboard. The bill would also require ski areas to provide rental helmets to children and be fined when an underage child doesn't wear a helmet on their slopes.
Seems pretty simple. Who can be against the safety of children?
Thursday, representatives of the ski industry testified against the bill at an Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee hearing.
Before testifying, Charles Blier, general manager of the Mountain Creek Resort, in Vernon, told me, ``I feel for the father who lost his daughter. He wants to make a difference, which this bill won't do.''
Blier explained: ``We are the first ones who need to be concerned about safety and we encourage changing behavior. I've often compared helmets with putting a bigger bumper on a car. If you're a reckless driver, you'll still get hurt, not matter how big the bumper is. And you'll think that you can go fast because you have a bigger bumper.''
Blier said education remains the most important way to change behavior and make skiers and snowboarders safer.
``We have nothing against the use of helmets, but the law would be unworkable and unenforceable,'' he said. ``A kid is 13 and he tells me he's 15. How do I prove it? And if he wears the helmet we rented to him and he falls, how will I know when it's returned at night that the helmet has been involved in an impact accident and needs to be returned to the manufacturer to be tested for safety?''
Dr. Jasper Shealy has studied ski injuries for 30 years. He testified before the committee that his statistics show that helmets don't protect the head against high-speed impacts and youngsters wearing helmets may take more risks and ski faster than they should because of a false sense of security provided by the helmet.
Dr. San Agustin and the bill's sponsor, Assemblyman Joseph Pennacchio (R- Morris), were among those testifying in favor of the bill, comparing it to bicycle and skateboard laws already on the books in New Jersey.
When asked by Committee chairman James Holzapfel (R-Ocean) how resorts would check ages, Pennacchio suggested the child show some type of ID.
Holzapfel then asked what type of identification a child can be expected to carry. Pennacchio offered that a parent could vouch for the child's age.
Dr. San Agustin testified that currently no state has a law requiring the use of ski helmets for any age.
``New Jersey is in a position to influence national standards,'' he said.
Several committee members found it difficult to vote against Dr. San Agustin and his bill, so they abstained, effectively killing the legislation.
While walking out of the State House Annex after the hearing, Blier said, ``There were no winners or losers today. We plan to reach out to Dr. San Agustin as soon as possible and try to work with him to address his concerns. We want to show him that we are serious about education. The emphasis has to be on education. Education would have an impact on all types of injuries, not just head injuries.''
After the hearing, I spoke with an angry Dr. San Agustin, who said, ``This is a sad day for the state. What I just witnessed was a travesty for democracy. The public supports this law and one group, the ski industry, lobbied against this bill. The representatives are elected to represent the interests of the public, not the special interests.''
When I asked him how a resort should be expected to check ages of children, he said, ``It's the responsibility of the parent to state the child's age when they buy a ticket. No child comes alone to ski. If the parent lies about the child's age, then it's the parent's responsibility. If the kid dies, then the parent would be liable.''
On the issue of damaged helmets being re-rented, Dr. San Agustin said he would rather see a child use a damaged helmet than no helmet at all.
Dr. San Agustin insists the law would be good for the ski areas: ``This should save the industry money. Insurance rates should go down at the resorts if a helmet law were in place... I don't know why I'm talking about profit _ we're talking about the lives of children. It's a win-win situation and I don't understand why any kind of responsible legislator would say no to this bill.''
Dr. San Agustin plans to continue his fight.
``Thirteen hard years I've been pushing for this bill,'' he said. ``I'm already planning to have the bill re-introduced. I've lost my only child, so I'm not doing this for me. It's for other families.''
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I, too, must disagree with Dr. San Agustin. The ski helmet bill can't be compared to the bicycle helmet law. The ski helmet law would have required private industry to be responsible for its enforcement. That's not its job. It's the job of the parents. Both Assemblyman Pennacchio and Dr. San Agustin admitted as much.
New Jersey, with its handful of relatively small ski areas, is in no position to be on the cutting edge of ski-helmet law. Those who don't want to obey such a law could just as easily ski Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains or the Catskills of New York, where ski helmets are not required.
States that have a major stake in the ski industry do not have helmet laws. Surely their lawmakers must be in tune with the needs of the industry and the skiers.
No one is against using helmets. I wear one. My wife wears one, and our 6 year- old daughter wears one.
I hope Mountain Creek's Blier and Dr. San Agustin can work together to find a more productive way to promote skier safety than spending the next 13 years in committee hearings.