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(Getty Images/Stock photo)
(Getty Images/Stock photo)

The great sledding safety debate Add to ...

The photographs tell the story: In one shot, five-year-old Brooklyn Short is airborne over a makeshift toboggan jump; the next frame shows a crooked image of her father's feet as he drops the camera.

Brooklyn had careened head first into a frozen hay bale at the bottom of the hill. "She's a daredevil," says her mom, Jennifer Short, an Ottawa high school teacher. "And you could tell her bell was rung."

An ambulance rushed to the scene. The nostalgic trip to her mom's childhood sledding hill at the city's experimental farm two days before Christmas in 2009 ended with Brooklyn strapped to a spinal board.

It's a perennial debate in a nation where rocketing downhill is a rite of passage: How do we find a balance between freedom and safety, toques and helmets, even as sleds seem to get faster ever year?

A helmet law hasn't had much traction, so cities typically post no-sledding signs to reduce liability (the Ottawa hill at the experimental farms has signs, though it's still used regularly for sledding), or place fences up to prevent injury.

At Winnipeg's Garbage Hill - where hardly a helmeted head is seen, according to teacher Kerry Kutcher, who sped down the slope as a child and now brings her young nephew - city workers installed tires beside a fence after injuries this holiday season.

Last month, parents at Toronto's Norway Junior Public School physically removed a fence that was installed to prevent sledding on a hill on the school property, prompting the principal to send out an e-mail warning parents their deed amounted to vandalism. (The fence is back up.)

While principal Royden Lamwatt agreed that society has to be careful not to bubble-wrap kids, the concrete, trees and basketball net at the bottom of the hill had led to at least one serious injury every winter. And in addition to safety issues, he says, "We are living in a very litigious society, and we have to be very careful."

Tracy Sicard, president of the parent council, says a solution is being worked out. "Sometimes these blanket rules don't make sense for everybody," she says.

A U.S. study released last summer tallied nearly 21,000 visits to emergency rooms from sledding injuries to children and teenagers over 10 years - nearly one-third of which were head injuries, most often caused by snow tubes.

That's what happened to Katelyn Longman, an 11-year-old in Saskatchewan, who broke both her legs after crashing into a tree on a snow tube during a school trip in December. Her mother Candace says she hadn't worried much about sledding safety before - though she was surprised by the size of the hill - but would now caution parents to consider helmets.

At the same time, Michael Ungar, a researcher at St. Mary's University in Halifax and author of Too Safe for Their Own Good, says it's important for children to learn how to manage risk - especially on a moving vehicle, before they end up behind the steering wheel of a car.

Without those experiences, he asks, "How do you anticipate dangers? How do you know what your body can do?" He suggests parents pose three questions: What risks did they take in childhood? What did they learn? And what experiences are teaching their kids the same lessons?

Despite the drama of that December afternoon (Brooklyn, who was wearing a helmet, was diagnosed with a mild concussion), Ms. Short says she tries not to over-protect her kids. "I always try to find a balance." Her daughter, meanwhile, is back on the sled, through only on sanctioned city hills, never head first and always in a helmet.

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