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Helmet use urged for sledders

| Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2001

If more snow falls as predicted this week, children assuredly will head outdoors with their sleds. But some medical professionals are advocating the use of helmets and other safety precautions when sledding.

'People are very aware to wear helmets for summer sports involving bikes and ATVs,' Dr. Richard Maenza, a Sewickley Valley Hospital emergency room doctor, said. 'But there is no emphasis for wearing helmets for sledding and skiing. A lot of the injuries are fractures and facial injuries.'

This season has had plenty of light snowstorms and has been one of the coldest early winters in years, so snow remained on the ground, according to the Accuweather Web site. During December, there were only eight days when there was no snowfall. And this weekend, more snow is expected.

Lots of people have happy memories of sledding, but it isn't as carefree an activity as some might think.

'It is a hazardous activity. You're sitting on something and going down a hill. It is something we all did, and by the grace of God, didn't get hurt,' Michael Diehl, Cranberry Township's director of parks and recreation, said.

Even though fluffy snow looks harmless, injuries still happen when a sledder hits a tree or is bounced off a rock.

Diehl said that since snow has been staying on the hillsides, Cranberry maintenance crews go daily to popular sledding and snowboarding hills, such as the one at North Boundary Park, to break up ramps, clear debris from the hillsides and place hay bales around obstacles such as trees or fenceposts.

But even with these precautions, local emergency rooms have had plenty of patients coming in with injuries sustained while sledding, snowboarding or skiing.

'During the last five years, we've had such mild winters,' said Dr. Len Urbanski, director of the St. Francis Medical Center North emergency room in Cranberry. 'So with this winter, we've had a lot more people coming with accidents from sledding.

For example, during the first week of January, the emergency room handled 22 sledding accidents. During Christmas and New Year's weekends, the emergency room handled 35 cases, he said.

Urbanski said he has seen other injuries from people snowboarding and skiing. Injuries included ruptured spleens, broken bones, cuts and minor concussions.

'The injuries (often) are nothing life-changing,' Maenza said. 'But if someone is sledding, it is a matter of time before you get hurt. Anytime you are moving fast and hurling yourself down a hill, there is bound to be injuries.'

In addition to sledding, skiing and snowboarding also require safety precautions, such as wearing helmets, taking lessons to learn proper techniques and going out in pairs, officials said.

'From a safety standpoint, I would not be unhappy if sledding never happened again,' Diehl said. 'But from a practical standpoint, that would never happen. You can't stop people from doing something fun.'

Ellen James can be reached at ejames@tribweb.com or at (724) 779-7123.

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