Minors at ski resorts in New Jersey will be required to wear helmets beginning next winter under a new law that is the first of its kind in the country.
Governor Chris Christie signed the bill April 6 and it will become effective Nov. 1. The law applies to skiers and snowboarders under the age of 18, and aims to reduce head injuries and save lives.
"I think it's very important to protect youngsters from injury," said State Senator Anthony Bucco, the bill's sponsor. "We protect them on bikes with helmet laws. Why not protect them on ski slopes?"
Bucco, a Republican from Boonton in the northern part of the state, had introduced similar legislation for a decade without success. He became a proponent of the helmet issue following lobbying from Dr. Norman San Agustin whose daughter Nicole died in 1988 after she was struck in the head by another skier at Hidden Valley Ski Resort near the Pennsylvania border.
Bucco said fellow lawmakers finally supported the legislation this time following high-profile incidents of fatalities due to head injuries, and new language that relieves resorts of liability. Under the law, the burden of enforcement will be on police, not resort personnel. The parents or guardian of youths who fail to wear helmets will be fined $25 for the first violation and $100 for subsequent infractions.
The law in New Jersey is the first by any state to mandate helmet use on the slopes, although other states have attempted to implement their own.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill last year that would have required minors to wear helmets and impose a $25 fine for parents. But the measure died when Schwarzenegger vetoed a companion bill that called for ski resorts to submit safety plans and reports to state officials.
In New York, a state senator is sponsoring a bill that would require skiers and snowboarders under 14 to wear a helmet. Parents of those who fail to comply would be fined $50.
Voluntary helmet use has been on the rise, according to Geraldine Link, a spokeswoman for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), an industry group. She said about half of all skiers and snowboarders wear helmets. Of those under age 9, about 87 percent wear helmets.
Still, there has been no corresponding drop in ski resort fatalities, which have averaged about 40 annually for the past 20 years. Link told ESPN before the New Jersey bill became law that the NSAA supported the legislation because it placed responsibility on parents and enforcement with police.
Yet she said helmets are no substitute for skiing and riding in a responsible manner.
"You can't just say, 'Everyone wear a helmet,' and expect slope safety to improve," she said. "You have to have that core message of individual responsibility to improve core safety. That's our view. It never changed."
"I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't wear helmets," Link said. "Our message from day one: Go ahead and wear one, but don't ski and ride differently. Act as if you're not wearing one."