Subject: “Ski Equipment Designed With Little Safety Regard” – WINTERSPORT BUSINESS (1/99 page 38)
Answer: In the letter the author decries the dearth of science in ski equipment design and the lack of industry funding for safety related research. The author also derides the quality of the epidemiological research that has been conducted and claims “it’s not responsible.”

In any field there is an ongoing tug-of-war between art and science and between tradition and innovation. The ultimate arbiter in these battles is the market place. But in the area of public safety an industry can not leave decisions solely to market forces. Here the tug-of-war is between regulation (usually by a government body) and standard industrial practices (usually voluntary).

In the U.S. the standards-making body for the snow sport industry is the ASTM. ASTM develops voluntary consensus standards. This means all parties–producers, users, and general interests–must agree (consent) before a standard can be published as a voluntary guideline for the industry. In the global snow sport economy standards among nations are worked out by the ISO (International Standards Organization). Standards in both organizations are reviewed routinely and change can only be made through valid scientific arguments.

As we all know, most other industrial nations rely heavily on government regulations and often a complicated bureaucracy. In the U.S., enforcement is ultimately by means of the plaintiff’s bar–the threat of civil suit. In any civil suit which bears on an industrial practice the science behind the standards is the critical underlying issue. Therefore, the science has to be both valid and defensible. This reality creates a strong incentive for the snow sport industry to fund independent research at many levels.

The process I have described has been going on for almost three decades. To date the results have been formidable. Injuries overall are down by 50% with lower leg injuries (the bane of alpine skiing 30 years ago) down by 90% and insurance rates have fallen due in large part to the industry’s success in defending its practices and the science on which they are based.

This record is proof of the professionalism of the parties participating in the process. The process is aided by groups such as the ISSS (International Society For Skiing Safety) which holds symposia every two years at which researchers can present and discuss their findings. The process is also helped by peer reviewed medical, engineering, and scientific journals. All provide grist for the standards mill.

Although these reports take many forms, among the most important are the epidemiological studies because they act as a report card on past efforts and help create an agenda for change in the future. In most cases these studies have identified positive improvements in injury rates and therefore helped to encourage further exploitation of the agents of change. Historic examples are the AFD and the ski brake. But in some cases the studies have provided warnings by identifying negative trends. Alerted by such warnings researchers can concentrate their efforts on finding the cause and eventually a cure. Such a process warned of the rise in serious knee injuries in the early 80’s and led finally to a program for addressing that risk through skier education in the 90’s. More recently the process has shown that shape skis do not increase the risk of injury but, combined with proper orientation, may actually contribute to a reduction in injuries of all types.

However, the institutions which forged these improvements are not immune to abuse. Among the most destructive influences are apathy and complacency. The best example is the ski board, a short ski with a non-releasable binding. In this case suppliers confused an absence of a standard for free rein to market a product of untested design, and researchers underestimated the product’s potential for rapid growth. While epidemiologists patiently process ski board injury statistics anecdotal evidence is already mounting which demonstrates the strong possibility that this product could produce lower leg injury rates on a par with alpine skiing three decades ago.

We all hope that the ski board is the exception which proves the rule and that the process which has worked so well in the past will continue to serve the industry in the future. But, to assure that all parties stay on track, the trade and consumer press must play a part and combat apathy with education and complacency with factual reporting and hard-hitting editorials. If the press had been more responsible over the past decade, the author of the letter I’ve referred to here might have drawn a different conclusion from his investigations.–CFE