If it’s teeth-chatteringly cold where you live, and there’s snow on the ground, your kids are probably whining to go sledding. But according to recent news reports, sledding is so dangerous that cities are outlawing it. The city of Dubuque, Iowa, just made it illegal for residents to sled in 48 out of the city’s 50 parks, and towns in New Jersey, Nebraska, Indiana, and Illinois have recently passed sledding ordinances, too.
But these cities aren’t doing it primarily for safety reasons. The real problem is liability. The city council in Boone, Iowa, had to shell out $12 million in 2011 to a sledder who collided with a concrete cube at the bottom of a hill. Omaha, Nebraska, had to pay a family $2.4 million. Other cities quite literally don’t want to follow suit, and understandably so. It’s reminiscent of the controversial safety overhaul many U.S. playgrounds have gotten over the past 25 years to prevent lawsuits. Yet the irony is that by instituting park sledding bans, cities might actually be putting their local children more at risk.
There’s no question that sledding can be dangerous. Kids—not known for their stellar judgment—are given carte blanche to fly down steep icy hills on flimsy contraptions they can’t steer or stop. They careen at more than 20 miles per hour—as fast as cars—yet they don’t have the protection of thick metal frames, or air bags, or seat belts. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that approximately 10,000 sledding-related injuries in children under the age of 14 were treated in hospital emergency departments in 2012.
That’s a lot. But by comparison, consider that trampolines caused nearly 79,000 ER-worthy injuries in kids under 14 in 2012, and television sets caused 26,000. (That doesn’t include the permanent hearing loss kids got from watching Dora the Explorer.) Sledding becomes much less dangerous when it’s done a certain way, too—and that’s precisely why these park sledding bans are a problem: Open spaces such as parks are among the safest places for kids to sled. One study found that the odds of going to the ER for sledding injuries were five times higher in children who had been sledding on the street compared with in the park.* Injuries sustained while street sledding are often much worse, too, and are more likely to involve traumatic brain injuries. But where are kids without big backyards going to sled if they can’t do it in the park? The street, of course.
But, you say, if kids can’t sled in parks, perhaps they just won’t sled at all! Maybe, but this outcome isn’t all roses, either. Children are much, much less likely to get the physical activity they need when it’s cold and windy out. Sledding solves this problem—kids love it and it provides exceptional exercise. It’s like the StairMaster, but with snow and brief high-speed interludes. Indeed, sledding burns as many calories per hour as skiing, but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper and more accessible.
So just because cities are passing sledding laws doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t let your kids sled. It just may be harder for you to find safe places for them to do it. Try to ensure that they only sled in wide, open spaces with gentle(ish) slopes and flat surfaces at the bottom, ideally going feet first. For extra caution, you can put them in bicycle, hockey, or ski helmets—some organizations recommend that sledders wear them, but the research is unclear as to how much of a protective effect they have. Finally, make sure your kids don’t sled near cars, trees, poles, or signs, because collisions in sledding accidents cause the worst injuries. I still remember the time a sled and I nearly smashed into a parked car while barreling down a street. No doubt I should have been sledding in a park.
*Correction, Jan. 9, 2014: This piece originally misstated that one study found that the odds of going to the ER for sledding injuries were higher in children who had been sledding in a park compared with on a street. The study actually found that kids are more likely to go the ER if they are sledding on the street. (Return.)