Colorado Ski Resort Safety and Why Politicians Aren't Trying to Improve It

Tess Smith died on March 6 after breaking her leg at Breckenridge several days earlier. She's one of eight people to die after an accident at Breckenridge over roughly a one-year period.
Tess Smith died on March 6 after breaking her leg at Breckenridge several days earlier. She's one of eight people to die after an accident at Breckenridge over roughly a one-year period. Family photo via YouTube
In the wake of the deadliest season at Colorado ski resorts in five years, a national snow-sports safety advocate recently argued in this space for ski areas to share data about injuries and casualties and publish their safety plans. At present, though, there is no legislation pending or in the works at either the state or federal level that would make such actions a requirement for the ski industry, which appears to fear that greater transparency could lead to a flood of lawsuits. Moreover, no state legislators and just one member of Colorado's congressional delegation, Representative Jared Polis, appear to have the issue on their radar.

In our reporting about Colorado ski deaths, we've noted that no state or federal agency officially gathers information about resort casualties. Hence the task is left to the ski areas themselves or industry groups such as Colorado Ski Country USA, which is associated with 22 resorts in the state, or the Lakewood-based National Ski Areas Association, which compiles an annual list of deaths across the country sans names, locations or specific details.

These groups do their best to release the smallest amount of information possible about each episode, which tends to minimize negative publicity that inevitably accompanies such accidents. But this approach can lead to some deaths being effectively concealed from the general public. For example, Westword was the first news agency in Colorado to report that Jim Bell, a firefighter from Kansas, died after a ski accident at Crested Butte in February — but a Colorado Ski Country USA representative said he was unaware of Bell's identity when we contacted the group for an April 18 post.

As noted by Dan Gregorie, who founded the SnowSport Safety Foundation after the 2006 death of his 24-year-old daughter at a California resort, this scenario is repeated across the country. "There are no laws of this kind in any state related to the ski industry," he told us for a post published in this space yesterday. "The ski industry effectively has no regulation or safety oversight."

The ski industry rejects this analysis and insists that safety is its number-one priority. But resorts from coast to coast are under no compulsion to reveal how many accidents or deaths take place on their property or to make safety plans publicly available so that patrons can use statistics to help them decide where they'd prefer to hit the slopes.

click to enlarge A photo-graphic from the SnowSport Safety Foundation Facebook page. - FACEBOOK
A photo-graphic from the SnowSport Safety Foundation Facebook page.
Gregorie spent the better part of a decade trying to change this equation in California. During the late 1990s, he notes in an online history of California snow-sport safety legislation, an attempt to establish a resort safety-study commission fell short in the face of opposition by the ski industry. Then, in 2007, he incorporated a nonprofit called the California Ski and Snowboard Safety Organization (CSSSO).

Two years later, the group collaborated with Assemblyman Dave Jones, currently California's insurance commissioner, to sponsor AB 990, a bill that would have required resorts in the state to submit safety plans, plus death and injury data, to California's division of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was already responsible for inspecting ski lifts.

That measure died in committee, but the following year, Jones and the CSSSO tried again with similar legislation, AB 1652. What Gregorie refers to as a watered-down version actually passed both houses of the state legislature — but it was vetoed by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. This pattern was repeated in 2011 with another bill on the topic, SB 278, except this time, the governor who did the vetoing was Jerry Brown, a Democrat. In 2013, a new variation, SB 564, passed the state Senate before being held over for the term for 2014, when it died amid a fusillade of negative lobbying by the California Ski Industry Association.

Few legislators anywhere would be inspired by such a bloody legislative history to introduce a bill on the topic in their state — especially in Colorado, where the ski industry may be more powerful than anywhere else in America. And indeed, neither Nourie Boraie, spokesperson for the Colorado Senate Republicans, nor David Pourshoushtari, communications director for the Colorado Senate Democrats, are familiar with any legislation of this sort that was introduced in the just-concluded 2017 session, and they're not aware of plans to push such a bill in either chamber of the General Assembly in the future.

Representative Jared Polis speaking at a Denver event last month. - FILE PHOTO
Representative Jared Polis speaking at a Denver event last month.
File photo
We also reached out to the two Colorado members of Congress whose districts are home to the most ski areas: Republican Scott Tipton, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, which includes Aspen and Steamboat Springs, and Democrat Jared Polis of the 2nd Congressional District, the setting for Vail and Summit County resorts such as Breckenridge, a resort that suffered eight deaths during roughly a one-year period from 2016 to 2017.

Liz Payne, communications director for Tipton, says he is not working on any ski-resort legislation about reporting or sharing safety plans, and neither is Polis. However, the latter's office supplied a statement from Polis that expresses concern about the subject. It reads:
Safety and transparency for our federal lands should be our top priority. I think improving reporting requirements and transparency in the leases under which operators use our public land including White River National Forest can help increase consumer confidence and encourage safety. People should be able to look at basic safety data when they are deciding where to ski.
It's unclear at this point if Polis's words will lead to a federal bill that could address ski-resort transparency across the country — if it managed to be passed and signed into law, that is. For now, however, ski areas can choose to report as much or as little as they'd like about deaths, injuries and safety plans. And little is currently winning by a landslide.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts