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Killjoy? Towns banning sledding to reduce risk.

Byline: Patricia L. Harman,

Snow days conjure up images of children building snowmen, snow forts and snow angels, followed by hot chocolate with lots of marshmallows. But one childhood tradition could soon be only a pleasant memory as more and more municipalities begin instituting sledding bans because of some recent judgments requiring million-dollar payouts to injured sledders. For example, the county council in Dubuque, Iowa is considering banning sledding in 48 of the city's 50 parks because of lawsuits brought against other cities.

A five-year-old girl in Omaha, Neb., was paralyzed when she hit a tree while sledding and the city found itself responsible for a $2 million judgment. A man in Sioux City, Iowa, hit a sign and injured his spinal cord, resulting in a $2.75 million payment. Following the blizzard in New England last week, a teen from Long Island was killed while sledding when he hit a light pole and injured his chest and ribs.

Since many municipalities are self-insured to a certain degree, these types of judgments are making authorities look for other ways to manage their risk. According to the Associated Press, communities in Iowa, New Jersey, Nebraska, Indiana and Illinois, are taking steps to restrict sledding on municipal properties.

A 2010 study conducted by the Center for Injury Research and Policy of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found that from 1997 to 2007 more than 229,000 children (or an average of 20,000 children a year) under the age of 19 sustained sledding injuries that required a trip to the hospital. Children between the ages of 10 and 14 experienced the most injuries - 42.5% - and boys (59.8% of the cases) were more likely to be injured than girls. While fractures (26.3%) were the most common injuries, the head was the most frequently injured body part (34.1%), usually due to collisions. This raises the question of whether or not individuals who go sledding should be wearing helmets like they do for biking and skiing.

For municipalities, rising insurance costs have led many to assume part of the risk by self-insuring for losses in some areas up to $2 million, and then insuring larger losses through commercial insurers or third-party administrators. The National Park and Recreation Association (NRPA) says there are more than 12,000 publically funded state and local recreation and park agencies across the U.S. and these organizations are responsible for maintaining thousands of parks from coast to coast.

In 2011, the Trust for Public Land said more than 20,000 individual parks were located within 100 of the nation's largest cities. The NRPA says that instead of outright bans on all parks, more municipalities are implementing site-specific bans on certain public properties where hazards may exist. They are also being proactive and posting signs about the risks involved with sledding to educate and protect those who use the parks.

Since sleds can reach speeds of 25 mph, proper precautions should be taken to protect sledders from possible injury. Here are some considerations:

* How far away is the sledding area from roads? Accidents occurring on streets and highways tend to result in more head injuries.

* Is there enough room to stop safely?

* Can sledders safely climb back up the hill without endangering those coming down?

* What types of hazards are nearby - e.g., trees, cars, gullies, poles, playground equipment, picnic tables, walls, fences, ponds or rivers?

* Have any immovable objects been surrounded by protective barriers like hay bales or inflatable bumpers?

* Are sleds that can be steered being used? (Cafeteria trays don't fall into the category of safe sleds!)

Staying safe

The type of sled used makes a difference because of the ability to control or steer it as one is racing down a hill. Toboggans, saucers and flat sheets are harder to steer, while more traditional sleds provide greater control. Traumatic brain injuries accounted for 9% of the sledding injuries and were twice as likely to occur when using a snow tube as compared to any other types of sleds because they are harder to steer.

Sledders should ride feet first down a hill because they can use their feet to steer more easily and this position gives them the best vantage point for seeing oncoming hazards. Sledders who ride on their stomachs or facing backwards have limited vision and ability to maneuver the sled to avoid a crash. Adult supervision greatly reduces the risk of injury. According to a study by the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons, more than 70% of all sledding injuries occur when an adult is not present.

Clothing can create a risk too. Sledders should be able to see clearly and not have their vision blocked by hats and other outerwear. Scarves should be tucked inside a coat or not worn at all since the scarf could get tangled under the sled and pull the sledder off or accidently choke him or her. Helmets are 85% effective when it comes to preventing brain injuries, and should be worn by all children who sled, particularly those under the age of 12. A multi-sport or bike helmet can proved appropriate protection.

Those who choose to go sledding must also make wise choices about where they sled, how many people they put on a sled, and how fast they can go down a hill and still maintain control. No one wants to put an end to a favorite pastime, but perhaps some prudence is in order.
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Publication:Property and Casualty 360
Geographic Code:1U4IA
Date:Feb 5, 2015
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