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(Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
(Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Why tobogganing isn't a carefree romp Add to ...

Children need to take risks to learn and grow. But some risks are plain stupid. Some of the risks to children in tobogganing are colossally stupid. And because tobogganing is an innocent, heartwarming, quintessentially Canadian activity, its risks are being overlooked by parents and communities.

Tobogganing needs public attention -- the right kind of attention. It does not need mandatory helmet laws, as some Toronto-area politicians have been urging. The state should not be putting a heavy legislative hand on a family activity that families should be able to make safe on their own.

Many Canadian homes aren't aware of the extent of the risk, however. Specialized trauma units across Canada report nearly as many tobogganing injuries as hockey injuries, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. There have reportedly been seven deaths since 2003 -- including two last month, of an eight-year-old Quebec girl who hit a tree and a 12-year-old Manitoba boy who went over a bump and hit his head on an icy surface. Seven deaths from tobogganing in four years is an atrocious number. Adult skiers consent to the potentially fatal risks of their sport; children who toboggan give no such consent.

Big risks are being borne by small children. One in six tobogganing injuries happens to a child who is from two to four years old. Nearly half of all tobogganing injuries requiring hospitalization happen to children 9 and under, according to a study by the Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program of Health Canada, which looked at five years of injuries (1997-2002) seen at 15 hospitals. Many of these injuries, especially in young children, are to the brain. Montreal Children's Hospital alone says its trauma centre's emergency department treats 125 tobogganing injuries a year; half of them involve brain traumas.

To understand how these injuries occur, consider the frenzied scene one Sunday afternoon last month in the bowl-shaped grounds behind Toronto's Leaside High School. The hills, some steep though not terribly high, were icy and unforgiving; there was virtually no cushion of snow. Several young children roughly one metre in height were zooming down on their own on plastic sheets. At the bottom of one part of a hill was a jump that flung the tiny tobogganers from their plastic sheets and through the air until they landed awkwardly on their back or on their head.

What on Earth were the parents thinking? Children of that age cannot control their direction or their speed on a steep toboggan run. They are also, when they manage to rise, oblivious to the much heavier tobogganers hurtling toward them. (One in eight tobogganing injuries happens in collisions with other people.) Helmets are useful to a point, but are not what these small children need. They need a bunny-rabbit run.

Part of the problem is that tobogganing's eternal innocence masks the risks. Toboggans reach speeds of 35 kilometres an hour or more. (The heavy wooden toboggans, almost an anachronism today, tend to be slower.) Andrew Howard, an orthopedic surgeon who helps run the trauma program at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, explains what happens. "If you're at a hill that has a 20-foot drop over 50 or 100 feet . . . you're going to speed up as much as gravity takes you as if you just stepped off a 20-foot drop. That's how much kinetic energy you're dealing with."

Parents would never allow a four-year-old to ride a motorbike on her own. "To get up to 35 kilometres an hour, you'd have to give a child a small motorbike to make them go as fast," says Dr. Howard. Something else to keep in mind: Thirty-five kilometres an hour is the threshold at which child fatalities in traffic accidents rise sharply.

There were other dangers in that bowl behind Leaside High. Someone had fashioned out of snow a long, low wall, not rounded, at the bottom of one segment of the hill. Children who struck it at a high speed experienced a jolt, not a jump. Those who went down face first risked permanent spinal-cord injury. The Health Canada data showed 25 spinal-cord fractures over the five years studied. Assume many more, since Health Canada says it captures just one in 10 toboggan injuries at the 15 hospitals that report to its monitoring program.

Taking reasonable risks is how children gain confidence, become less dependent on their parents and grow comfortable in the wider world. Bringing the risks of tobogganing to reasonable levels is not rocket science. Parents should ensure that small children stay on small hills, and that helmets are used on steep or bumpy runs, or runs where children do jumps or other tricks. Public health authorities should do more to make the dangers known. No one in this cold country should be oblivious to the risks, or unaware of how to minimize them.

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