Colorado skier safety bill fails to make it out of committee vote

Bill faced stiff opposition from the ski industry but strong support from families who have lost loved ones on the mountain

Nate Peterson
Vail Daily
Ski patrollers tend to an injured skier in Vail’s Game Creek Bowl on Dec. 11, 2020.
Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun

A bill that would require Colorado ski areas to share safety strategies as well as statistics revealing injuries and fatalities didn’t make it out of a committee vote Thursday in Denver after hours of emotional testimony.

More than 20 supporters representing a mix of families who have lost loved ones to skiing accidents, injured skiers, consumer safety advocates, physicians and academic experts testified in support of Senate Bill 184, known as “Ski Area Safety Plans and Accident Reporting,” in Thursday’s hearing in front of the Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat.

The bill faced stiff resistance from ski industry leaders who testified Thursday.

Patricia Campbell, who has run Vail Resorts’ Mountain Division since 2015 and is taking a senior advisor role with the company, offered testimony against the bill, as did Rana Dershowitz, a high-ranking Aspen Skiing Company executive, and Melanie Mills, the president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA. Chris Romer, the president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, also spoke out against the bill.

A vote to move the bill out of committee failed, 4-1, with the lone “aye” vote coming from Sen. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge, who was one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

A fight over the public’s right to know

The bill would have required all Colorado resorts to issue seasonal reports on accidents and deaths, including details about where and when the accident occurred, mountain conditions, the nature of the resulting injuries and other “non-private” information about the injured skier. It would have also required each ski area to adopt and publish, in printed form and on the ski area’s website, a safety plan specifying the governance, management, and operational roles, responsibilities, and practices of the ski area to prevent accidents and reduce the frequency and severity of injuries.

Resorts would also be required to report injuries that occur when a skier is loading or unloading from a chairlift since the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board only tracks injuries sustained while riding the chair, not while loading or unloading.

Safe Slopes Colorado, a group that has helped organize support for the bill, cites statistics from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to make the case for transparency from the resorts to help inform consumers.

According to CDHPE stats, there were more than 8,000 emergency room visits in Colorado in 2019 as a result of accidents at ski resorts — or about 55 a day. The stats also indicate the number of skiers and snowboarders visiting ERs jumped more than 80% from 2016 to 2019.

“That makes skiing by far, no matter how you look at it, the recreation activity that leads to the most serious injury,” said Russ Rizzo with Safe Slopes. “So just by that metric alone, it’s a serious issue and everybody will agree with that.”

Rizzo also said stats compiled by OSHA, a federal agency, show that Vail Resorts, Colorado’s largest ski resort operator, has led the state for five straight years in workplace accidents.

Steamboat Ski Patrol member Chris McCormack tightens a rope to a lift evacuation seat during a training session at Steamboat Resort in March.
John F. Russell

“The reason why they collect that information is because it leads to better safety,” Rizzo said. “And that’s exactly what we’re asking for. Are we saying that’s a shocking thing and it’s a horrible thing? No, absolutely not. Of course, we would expect it to be pretty high. We’re talking about something inherently dangerous. But that also means that we ought to be taking safety seriously and doing everything we can do to be as safe as possible and using best practices from other industries. And the No. 1 way of improving safety is to have transparency.”

Personal stories

Among those who testified in support of the bill Thursday were family members of those who lost loved ones in skiing accidents and skiers who suffered catastrophic injuries on the mountain.

The unifying message: Transparency could save lives — and at a negligible cost to the resorts, since they’re likely already collecting the accident data themselves and have internal safety plans.

Stephanie Stevenson, a family physician, lost her husband, Paul Cohen, a neurosurgeon, when a skier collided with him at Snowmass in March 2014. She testified that she hasn’t taken her children back to Colorado or skiing again since her husband’s death.

“If a truck had hit him, we would have gotten more information than we did from the ski resort about the man responsible for hitting him,” she said. “The concern about what happened and how to learn from it and prevent something like that from happening again was simply not present. Instead, the concern was self protection from lawsuits.”

She told a story about how she and her daughter were hiking in Zion National Park in Utah recently and were considering taking a specific trail with beautiful views.

“We saw a sign that stated how many hikers had died hiking that trail,” she said. “This was important information for us because that sign made us choose a different trail … This notion that skiing and boarding are inherently dangerous and if someone is seriously hurt or killed is the individual’s fault has to change.”

Others who testified included Danilda Polanco, a family member of 18-year-old Etthan Mañon, who died skiing at Echo Mountain on Christmas Eve last year, Lynda Weston Taylor, whose son Jason “Jay” Taylor who died after an accident at Keystone Resort in 2016, and Kim Hart, whose father died following accident at Copper Mountain last year.

Chris Arnis, a ski coach in Steamboat Springs, became a quadriplegic after a ski accident in March 2012 when he hit some deep ruts late in the day on a part of the mountain where a maze of speed-controlling fence had just been pulled for grooming.

Arnis said he was stonewalled trying to get any information about his accident from the resort, or any assurance that such a thing wouldn’t happen again.

“I got a small piece of paper that had tons of misinformation on it,” he said. “I’ve had people interview the ski area and have them tell lies about what time it happened. I have 20 witnesses. … I feel like I’ve been totally ripped off. This destroyed my family and destroyed me.”

Industry’s defense

Dershowitz, with the Aspen Skiing Co., said the bill included fundamentally flawed suggestions, namely that ski areas are not currently taking the safety of their guests and employees seriously.

“Instead of respecting the 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’s happening on our mountains towards ensuring that they are collecting dozens of specific and potentially irrelevant data points,” she said. “We want our ski patrollers focused on actually monitoring mountain safety.”

She added: “What other businesses or activities anywhere are tasked with collecting this level of detailed information on their customers and their guests? Yes, skiing has inherent risks. We all know that, but so do many other activities we and our families all engage in. Do we require this type of information from community swimming pools, youth hockey or soccer programs?”

Campbell, speaking on behalf of Vail Resorts, testified that the proposed publishing of a safety plan is not workable.

“I don’t see it having the intended impact, but rather creating unnecessary burden, distraction and confusion,” she said. “First, the bill assumes that guests will ask for and can use this information. In my experience, I have not heard guests ask about specific safety plans as a basis for making their decision on where to ski versus other considerations like location, terrain or resort amenities.”

She closed her remarks by saying that all ski areas care deeply and do a lot on safety but that publishing safety plans will not inform skiers, nor create a safer ski area.

“We oppose the legislation before you, but please know our door is always open to discuss safety,” she said.

That remark drew a strong rebuke from Daniels, the co-sponsor of the bill, in her closing remarks before the committee before the deciding vote.

“Vail came here today to say our door is always open to discuss safety,” she said. “When we tried to engage the industry, not just Vail, but the ski country representatives as well, we were told that they didn’t intend to even tell us why they couldn’t make this bill work, let alone what they would like to change if they had the chance. They refused to tell us why this bill was unacceptable prior to today and in committee today, basically, we heard that they think it might be inconvenient and require some administrative hours to comply.”

She continued: “We heard that the data might give them a black eye that is undeserved. So it kind of makes me wonder, what is it that they’re hiding?”

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