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Ski Patrols Attempt to Halt the Need for Speed


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Jan. 11, 2001 -- An expert skier who, just once, lost control. That's the apparent story behind Nathan Hall, convicted last fall in Colorado of criminally negligent homicide. Hall was, according to witnesses, speeding down a slope at Vail Resorts in 1997, when he collided with a relatively new skier, 33-year-old Alan Cobb. Cobb did not survive. Hall, who could face up to six years in prison, was scheduled to be sentenced last week. However, a court official says the sentencing has been rescheduled for the end of the month.

Has the Hall case -- and the deaths of high-profile skiers such as Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy -- changed skiing? On the face of it, possibly yes.

Take Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont. Stowe spokesman Kirt Zimmer says safety has always been important, but last year they started a new campaign around the Triple As: Attitude, Awareness, and Accountability.

"We're trying to remind folks of appropriate behavior on the mountain," Zimmer says -- right down to their language on the lift line. "It was created because of an increasing number of complaints by guests who felt violated in some way. Skiing is a flat business. There's been little growth in the last 20 years, so ski resorts have to pay attention to retention."

Zimmer says while some resorts have gone the authoritarian path -- with stringent rules and penalties for bad behavior -- Stowe is trying to "nip things in the bud" so that punishment won't be necessary. Still, when it's time to take someone's lift ticket away, they're offered a second chance to absorb the slope's philosophy. It's called the "penalty box" and involves studying the rules and being tested on them. Passers get to ski again.

"We're continually looking for ways to elevate people's awareness," says Chuck Tolton, a director of risk management at Vail. "Our accident rate has not gone up in decades ... it's about three per 1,000 skiers. That's pretty low. That's comforting."

Tolton says every skier should keep in mind that there seems to be a common denominator with serious injuries: speed. "One of the things I think is abundantly clear is that speed, simply put, is the overwhelming constant to serious injury. ... I am convinced you can enjoy a lifetime of relatively injury-free skiing" if you control your speed.

"Just be smart. It is so simple. Slow down," he adds.

Rebecca Ayers of the National Ski Patrol says there has always been a heavy emphasis on safety with the sport, but the focus lately has grown stronger. Still, she notes, the reality is you can't control every one. "There are people who conduct themselves in an irresponsible manner in any recreational activity, but to say skiing and snowboarding are unsafe because there are accidents ... that is just as irresponsible. Skiing is as safe and enjoyable as you make it."

Colorado lawyer Jim Chalat, who has taken on ski-injury cases in the past, says the Hall conviction has made skiing safer. "I felt very strongly then and very strongly now that the impact is very positive for ski safety."

Chalat says that he felt without the potential for criminal sanctions, reckless skiing could grow to epidemic proportions. "We're fed up seeing these -- often children -- get hurt very badly by irresponsible skiers. Often they leave the scene or take a blasé attitude about it."

It is those attitudes they hope to keep off the slopes at Vail and Stowe.

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