Chairlift Safety Debate: The Lowdown on Chairlift Bars Up or Down

by Dan Giesin | January 10, 2024

There’s a debate raging in certain circles in the ski world that has even caused some family members and other loved ones to take opposing viewpoints.

Sometimes even hotly.

What we’re talking about here is whether the restraining (don’t call it safety!) bar on a chairlift should be raised or lowered during the ride up the mountain.

Now, I’m old school enough — I won’t say how old but my first pair of ski boots were leather lace-ups — to have spent the majority of my on-mountain career riding chairs blissfully unaware of even the existence of restraining bars. So to me having the bar up is a matter of habit.

And, to be honest, preference.

A Ubiquitous Device

But with the invention, and now plethora, of high-speed, detachable chairs and their factory-installed restraining bars — the devices have become ubiquitous. And for many younger skiers and snowboarders — and few old timers as well — tugging the restraining bar down, which is a relatively new phenomenon, particularly in the West, is what they prefer doing.


Well, there are several factors that come into play here.

The restraining bar provides a physical barrier that helps prevent accidental falls, particularly during windy conditions or a lift malfunction. It’s particularly useful in keeping often fidgety and restless kids from taking a tumble to the ground below.

The bar can help psychologically as well, because it adds a heightened sense of security by reducing anxiety and fear associated with heights.

Safety … in Numbers

But is/was there really a crying need for restraining bars?

Statistically, riding a chairlift at a ski resort is one of the safest modes of transportation in the United States.

According to data provided by the National Ski Areas Association, the annual death rate from some misadventure (mechanical breakdown, rider error, operator error, medical condition, etc.) on a chairlift over the past 45 years or so — which covers both the no-bar and ubiquitous-bar eras — is 0.145 percent per million miles ridden (the national average annual miles ridden is around 200 million miles). To put that in perspective, a person is five times more likely to have a fatal accident while riding an elevator than riding a lift.

Furthermore, the non-lethal injury rate is relatively low as well: According to the Colorado Passenger Tramway Board, the only state agency that keeps such statistics, there were just 227 injuries associated with chairlift incidents between 2001/02 and 2011/12 winter seasons.

None of these stats, it must be noted, specifically took into account whether the restraining bar was up or down.

Who Does and Doesn’t

So, how many skiers and snowboarders actually pull the bar down?

In a paper published last January in ScienceDirect, a platform of peer-reviewed scientific, technical and health literature, it was determined that fewer than half (41.6 percent) of the chairlift riders in the United States pulled the bar down.

The paper got its results from observing riders on 24 lifts at eight ski areas over four geographical regions — that’s 16,286 passengers on 6,343 chairs — and found that the geographical area with most bar-down riders was the Northeast with 80.4 percent and the fewest in the Midwest, which weighed at 9.4 percent (Rocky Mountain riders used the bar 39.2 percent of the time and the Pacific Southwest came in at 17.9 percent).

The paper also stated factors that led to increased use of the restraining bar were riders that included both children and adults, chairs with skiers only (no boarders) and, surprisingly, chairs that were fixed-grip (as opposed to detachable).

In Conclusion

So it seems that restraining bar use is both a matter of preference and location. And that the safety of kids is a prime reason for tugging it down while taking a journey up the hill.

All I can say is if you’re riding a lift and want to use the bar please inform your fellow passengers.

Nothing worse than getting bonked on the noggin — even if it’s ensheathed in a helmet — by some inconsiderate bar-ista.

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