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Originally published December 19, 2008 at 12:44 PM | Page modified December 19, 2008 at 3:15 PM

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Look out! Safety measures can keep a fun day of sledding from ending in serious injuries

Oh, the joy felt by a child when soaring through the air on a sled, the wind...

The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.)

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Sledding is a great winter pastime for families. A few simple safety precautions can prevent serious injury.

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JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Sledding is a great winter pastime for families. A few simple safety precautions can prevent serious injury.

Sledding safely

— Do not sled on public streets or down tree-covered hills or on rocky terrain; even a small hill in a back yard may lead to an alley where cars travel.

— Walk around the bottom of a hill to ensure posts, fences or other obstacles are not present.

— Never sled onto frozen creeks, lakes or holding ponds unless the thickness of the ice has been checked.

— Sit in a forward-facing position; running with a sled and doing a "belly-flop" landing offers little control of the sled.

— Don't sled headfirst.

— Avoid sledding on plastic sheets. They cannot be steered and can be pierced by sharp objects.

Source: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Adults at risk too

While the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends helmets for kids younger than 12, results of sledding injuries from an Italian study that found the percentage of sledding injuries were higher in adults than in children. That led researchers to recommend helmets be worn by all ages when sledding. Of cases treated at Parkview Hospital, the majority of serious head injuries in sled accidents occurred in children.

Nevertheless, adults' injuries affected multiple limbs or body parts. One man, for example, who struck a tree in March, endured injuries so severe that it caused compression fractures of seven thoracic vertebrae in his spine, resulting in paraplegia, or loss of use of his arms. A 74-year-old woman received compression fractures of thoracic vertebrae that caused a 30 percent loss in height. A 19-year-old man received a concussion. A 42-year-old man's injuries included a collapsed lung and broken collarbone, shoulder and ribs after he went over a bump while sledding at a Fort Wayne, Ind., park and landed on his shoulder. Ouch!

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Oh, the joy felt by a child when soaring through the air on a sled, the wind smacking already-rosy cheeks, the child screaming with delight at each bump and turn while mittened hands grip the sled's edge for dear life.

Most adults likely recall that fun as something every child should experience. I know I certainly did and have taken my children, and now my young grandchildren, sledding on hilly places. It's just good, clean fun.

But some sobering national statistics and local hospital data have given me pause. While I'm not trying to rain on your snowy parade, I hope parents, grandparents and kids will take some safety measures this winter before heading out for a slide on the sled.

According to the National Safety Council, about 33,000 sledding injuries are treated in hospital emergency rooms each year, plus 1,500 tobogganing injuries. Sledding injuries frequently result in closed head injuries and facial cuts.

In fact, according to Safe Kids USA, about 3,000 children a year incur serious head injuries in sledding accidents, which is why the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends all children younger than 12 wear a helmet while sledding.

While sleds with metal runners may be thought to be more dangerous than the plastic or metal saucer-type sled, experts say sleds that can be easily steered are the safest.

"Never use homemade sleds," such as sheets of plastic or garbage-can lids, says Michele Kadenko-Monirian, a pediatric nurse at Parkview Hospital who tracks pediatric trauma data for the Fort Wayne, Ind., hospital's Level II trauma center.

Kids want to go fast, and the plastic sheet or metal disc that can be waxed or coated with spray oil to make it more slippery is a child's dream that can become a nightmare.

"A lot of the injuries are due to velocity," Kadenko-Monirian said, noting a high percentage of the more serious sledding accidents treated at Parkview's trauma center were pulled by ATVs or another vehicle.

Another safety issue is failure to scope out the sledding area.

"Location, location, location," is key, Kadenko-Monirian said, noting she recently observed some children sledding down a hill close to a ravine that sometimes holds water.

"There was no water in it right now," she said. But children often assume, if it's cold enough to have unmelted snow on the ground, holding ponds and lakes are safe to sled across.

Walk the sledding path before going down it. Rocks or other objects can be hidden by snow, she said.

Sledding in streets or down sloping driveways that end at the street should never be done. Youngsters may assume they can turn their discs or sleds before going out into the street. It's a dangerous assumption.

Don't give up sledding, though. Take the advice of Parkview trauma surgeon Dr. Mary Aaland: "I encourage people to stay active in the winter months and enjoy the activities that the season provides. However, Parkview's Trauma Center sees many injuries that could be avoided if safety precautions were taken. While sledding, always wear a helmet. Don't get pulled on a sled by any type of vehicle, and never sled in areas with trees or near busy streets."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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