Speed kills on snowy slopes of Alps

( dpa ) - The accident toll has soared this season in Europe's winter playground, the Alps, with a rising number of sled crashes adding to the steady stream of deaths from avalanches, rescue services say.

"Each of our helicopters is flying four to five missions a day to rescue seriously injured ski and snowboard users," said Herbert Forster, the mountain rescue service doctor at Immenstadt, Germany.

The climb in accidents while sledding was significant, but he had no immediate figures.

Overall, the toll on some ski fields was 20 per cent higher than in previous years, he told the Munich office of Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa during a survey of accident teams in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Austria said this season's earlier than usual arrival of show meant a longer winter sports period and more Alpine mishaps.

The Austrian Safety Council counted 59,100 ski and snowboard accidents a year ago and expects 60,000 this season. A Vienna newspaper, Der Standard, says more people suffer accidents on the snow each year than on Austria's roads.

Of the 20 fatalities counted by the Environment Ministry in the Austrian Alps so far this year, 13 were in avalanches. Strong winds after fresh snowfall caused the snowslides, but a large dose of human carelessness is blamed when people are caught under the slips.

Switzerland's Rega helicopter rescue service said there had been five fatalities since November in connection with winter sports in the Swiss Alps, "comparatively a lot, since we usually get that number in the whole season ending in April."

Doctors, insurance companies and mountain rescue teams say the toll could be reduced if skiers and sledders were obliged to wear crash helmets similar to those in other high-speed sports.

"I'm certain that would avoid some of the horrific outcomes," said Rolf-Dieter Winkler, a senior mountain rescue official in Bavaria's Fichtelgebirge range north of the Alps.

Forster agreed, saying skiers who fall on their heads risk shattered skulls and brain damage.

A current interest in sleds has led to a big rise in sled crashes, with several fatalities so far in Austria.

"The new sleds are built for speed and adults are using them on steep, fast sled runs," said Claus Huyer, a doctor in Marktoberdorf.

"Spinal and knee injuries are the typical outcome," he said.

The risk rises when riders take one drink too many during late afternoon breaks in sledder bars at the top of the slopes before a descent in the failing light.

Gerald Lehner, spokesman for the Austrian mountain rescue service, said, "They can't steer the things and crash into fences or trees."

Flying-saucer-style plastic toboggans are the worst, as they have no steering at all. Traditional sleds with runners can be steered by shifting weight or with the heels.

All the experts agree that higher speeds on well-groomed pistes, which are often very hard because of the high traffic, are the key factor behind the rising number of winter-sports casualties.

That gain cancels out the improved safety features in skis, snowboards and sleds.

Forster said, "From midday onwards, the clinic practically gets invaded by victims, usually 30 to 40 a day. This is big business.

"Typically the snowboarders suffer upper body injuries, to the shoulders, arms, elbows and wrists, while the skiers hurt the lower half: knees, calves and tendons."

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