A 24-year-old Sioux Falls woman killed in a skiing accident near Lead over the weekend was not wearing a helmet, but experts say taking that safety measure might not have prevented her death.
Tina Heilman, a beginning skier, died Saturday after she crashed into a chairlift support tower on a beginner run at the Terry Peak Ski Area.
Helmets are only effective when the user is going slower than 15 mph, said Michael Berry, president of National Ski Areas Association. But many skiers and snowboarders typically move between 20 mph and 30 mph, according to Russell Hatten, a ski accident attorney who practices in Denver. Hatten works with people injured in ski-related accidents, which are typically collisions with other skiers or snowboarders, he said.
"Wear a helmet; it's a smart idea," Berry said. "But we also say ski and snowboard as though you're not wearing a helmet."
Although many ski resorts in the U.S. recommend wearing helmets, only one state -- New Jersey -- requires that skiers younger than 17 wear them.
Eleven people have died of ski- and snowboard-related injuries so far this ski season in Colorado, and in the two most recent deaths there, the participants wore helmets, according to the Denver Post.
In the 2009-10 ski season, 38 people died in ski- or snowboard-related deaths throughout the U.S., and 19 of them were wearing helmets, according to the National Ski Areas Association. About 10 million skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes in 2008, according to data from the National Sporting Goods Association.
Saturday's death was the first in 15 years for Terry Peak.
Terry Peak requires use of helmets for some ski classes but not for general skiing or snowboarding, Terry Peak general manager and president Tom Marsing said.
"We go along with recommending helmets, but we do not require helmets," Marsing said. Staffers encourage beginners to take ski lessons before they try a run alone, he said.
"First-time skiers -- usually it's not a real fun time because you're always falling and getting up, and you're wet," Marsing said. "We always encourage first-timers to come up and enjoy learning how the right way is."
Ski Mystic, another ski area near Lead, recommends helmet use and lessons but does not require them, general manager Alicia Salas said. That resort takes the precaution to post warning signs on the slopes to alert users to slow run areas, she said.
Nationally, Vail Resorts, which operates Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone resorts in Colorado and Heavenly and Northstar-at-Tahoe resorts in California, does not require most skiers or snowboarders to wear helmets, spokeswoman Kate Lessman said. In lessons there, children younger than 12 wear helmets unless their parents sign waivers, and employees must wear helmets while skiing or snowboarding, she said.
NSAA's Berry said most ski-related deaths happen on intermediate runs when a skier or snowboarder runs into an object such as a tree or support tower. The best way to prevent ski crashes and deaths is to always stay in control, he said.
"People often think there's all sorts of complex reasons (for a crash), but really, it's the issue of control," he said. "If you can control your speed and direction you go a long way to avoiding moments of consequence."
Berry recommends skiers follow a seven-point responsibility code to stay safe on the slopes.
"Skiing is a thrill sport, there's no doubt about it. It allows us to do things we can't ordinarily do," he said. "Doing it in such a fashion where you don't create consequences for yourself is always a challenge."
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