Unlike accidents on our highways, waterways, and theme parks, there is no system for independently tracking accidents at ski resorts, despite the fact that in California, most resorts are on federal land.
Instead, accident tracking is left up to the ski industry to self-report, with little transparency.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit analyzed injury data from the National Ski Areas Association from 2005 to 2012.
According to the NSAA, during those seasons, an average of 47 people were seriously injured (defined as paralysis, broken neck or back, traumatic brain injuries, and other serious injuries) at resorts nationwide. That’s 47 serious injuries out of more than 50 million annual visits to ski areas.
It’s a stellar safety record that NBC Bay Area was unable to verify. The Investigative Unit asked for details showing exactly how the industry tracks and defines these injuries and was repeatedly told that information is confidential.
In April, NBC Bay Area spoke with Bob Roberts with the California Ski Industry Association who maintained that the there is no public demand for the ski industry to release accident details.
"People haven’t asked for that information. We have 300,000 season pass holders and we listen to them,” Roberts said. “They understand we have safety cultures, we have very strong safety cultures."
The ski industry says there have been amazing strides in reducing fatalities and injuries over the decades to the point where they are now a rare occurrence.
While there is no independent system for tracking accidents and trends at resorts, California Department of Public health does track the number of skiers and snowboarders that turn up in emergency rooms throughout the state.
According to data NBC Bay Area obtained from the state, medical staff treated an average of 6,884 California residents a year for ski or snowboard related injuries including a fractured head or neck (18 per year), fractured backs (101 per year) and traumatic brain injuries (798 per year), in addition to sprains and strains.
The NSAA acknowledged that their data is used internally to monitor trends at U.S. ski areas, however refused to release any further details such as specific dates, locations, and specific injuries to the public, stating:
“Although comprehensive, the data NSAA compiles annually is relatively small. This data pool is modest, and therefore, breaking it down by state or resort would encourage misrepresentation of the data, particularly by the media, creating the false impression that one state or ski area is less safe than another state or ski area. Fatalities and serious injuries are relatively rare, and the truly random nature of these incidents can easily be taken out of context.”
Dr. Warren Withers is the medical director of the emergency room at Barton Memorial Hospital in South Lake Tahoe. It’s an area surrounded by the area’s major ski resorts.
Withers told NBC Bay Area he would find it hard to imagine there are only 47 serious injuries a year based on what he sees in his emergency room.
“That number seems pretty low for eight years of data,” Withers said of the trade industry’s statistics.
During ski season, Withers said his ER sees patients everyday coming from the ski resorts. At least once a week, he said, those injuries will require overnight care.
“We see multiple fractures, collapsed lung, upper extremities, wrist, shoulder injuries head injuries,” Withers detailed.
Avid skier and writer Bob Berwyn has been covering the ski industry for decades in Colorado where accident details are also kept hidden from the public.
“I think the industry is self-regulating,” Berwyn told NBC Bay Area. “They don’t want people to get killed or get hurt, they do a lot to ensure safety, but it’s not in a very public way.”
Berwyn argues that increasing the transparency of accident data would increase safety for everyone on the mountain.
“The ski industry has a national association, so they have an institutional mechanism to address this issue and I think it could be put to better use,” Berwyn said.
Dr. Withers agrees that transparent accident data can play a huge role in preventing future deaths and injuries on the mountain.
“Data is tremendously important, especially in identifying patterns of injuries because that’s how you identify ways to improve safety measures,” Withers said.
Several ski safety bills have been introduced in the last decade that would have required resorts to make their accident data public. Those bills were vetoed by both Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown saying they were redundant and unnecessary.
The latest bill may be heard again later this spring.