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Sledding Season: All Downhill from Here?

December 3, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Think sledding is harmless fun? Well, it may be fun but it’s not harmless.

″It’s a very common misperception that sledding is perfectly safe,″ said Dr. Robert Dershewitz, chief of pediatrics at the Braintree, Mass., facility of a health maintenance organization, the Harvard Community Health Plan. ″It has its own inherent dangers.″

Dershewitz reviewed the dangers in a brief report in the American Journal of Diseases of Children. The study is based on hospital treatment statistics collected by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health over three years ending Aug. 30, 1982, but the breakdowns are similar to those in other studies, Dershewitz said.

The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission reports 31,809 cases in which sledders had to come to hospital emergency rooms in 1989.

Forty-one percent of injuries in Dershewitz’ study were to children ages 5 to 9, and almost two thirds of the total 211 cases he studied came early in the sledding season - in December or January.

Serious injuries, such as concussion, internal injury or broken bones, took place in 21 percent of all sledding-related cases, often because the sledder ran into a fixed object such as a telephone pole, tree or fence, the study said. Nine percent of all sledding injuries required hospitalization, with an average stay of about six days.

A separate study of injuries brought to The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa found 38 percent happened because children fell off the sled, said Dr. Chandra Vaidyanathan, the study’s prime author.

Another 13 percent of the 172 cases from December of 1987 to April of 1988 resulted from a collision with another sled, 18 percent from striking a tree, and 13 percent from striking other objects, such as a wall, said the emergency room physician.

Also, she said, 10 percent came from collisions with another person - generally, cases in which one child was walking up the run while another came sledding down. Sled runs should be divided into uphill and downhill lanes to avoid this, she said.

Dershewitz and Vaidyanathan conceded that their figures don’t tell how much risk a child faces, because they had no total number of sledders against which they could compare the numbers of injured. But both say the sport could be made safer if parents and children paid attention to sledding conditions.

The surface should be snowpacked but not icy, Dershewitz said. A sled will go slower on snow than on ice, and snow will cushion the impact if a sledder falls off, he said.

The run should have no more than a 30 degree incline, and include a long runoff, so the sled can decelerate slowly, he said.

The area should be examined closely to make sure there are no hazards such as poles, fences, snow-covered boulders, or nearby traffic, Dershewitz said. Vaidyanathan agreed, saying the two deaths reported in her study occurred when sledders skidded into traffic.

Sledders should be dressed properly, including bicycle helmets to guard against head injuries, Dershewitz said.

In fact, he said, sledders would be better off going down feet first.

″The really significant injuries occur with the collisions - the headfirst kind of thing,″ the doctor said. Going down feet first may cause injuries also, because the sledder can’t see easily where he’s going, but these are likely to be less severe, he said.

And, he said, the sled should be safe. The American Academy of Pediatrics says parents should look for a sturdy model with secure handholds and no protruding hardware, jagged edges or splinters.

Parents also should supervise, said Vaidyanathan. If their child is not at a supervised sledding area, they should make it one by doing more than standing at the top of the run and watching, she said.

END ADV for Release Mon Dec 3 and thereafter