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As municipalities ban tobogganers from snowy hills because of the fear of litigation, medical experts say there is a compromise: better education and grooming slopes for safety.

Last week, Hamilton's conservation authority agreed to revive enforcement of a bylaw from the 1970s that bans sledding on city property. The move was prompted by a 2013 lawsuit in which the plaintiff received $900,000 from the city after suffering a sledding injury.

Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti, past-president of Canadian Medical Association, says that a hill should be shut down if it's particularly steep or dangerous, but not because of fears of litigation.

"My bone of contention is the knee-jerk reaction from municipalities – just banning it instead of saying, 'How can we make it safer for people to participate?' " he said.

"By and large, people go out and toboggan and you never hear anything about that – it's a pretty safe activity," he said. "You'll still get the occasional bump and bruise or fractured wrist, but big deal – those things heal. The things you don't want to get are serious head, ocular and spinal cord injuries."

Dr. Francescutti said outright bans only work if municipalities subsequently groom safer hills for sledding.

He cited a large, popular hill in Edmonton where the top half is blocked with snow fences leaving the bottom half free for people. Bales of hay at the bottom of similarly dangerous hills provided a safety cushion for overly speedy tobogganers.

The risk of tobogganing is real enough, according to research by Dr. Charles Tator, a neurosurgeon at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre of Toronto Western Hospital.

Dr. Tator performed research for Parachute Canada, an injury prevention group, which did a study over four years that found tobogganing carried the fourth highest chance of personal risk after diving, snowmobiling and parachuting.

In the same four-year study, there were an average of 37.7 catastrophic injuries per 100,000 sledders; Fifty per cent of those were head injuries with 22.5 per cent to the spine.

But Dr. Tator doesn't sympathize with sledding bans either.

Like Dr. Francescutti, he thinks municipalities should provide information on how to ride safely rather than block off popular hills.

"Tobogganing is as Canadian as it gets," he said.

How to reduce the risks? Control and head protection.

Dr. Francescutti said the danger for tobogganers is the sudden drop in the kinetic energy stored up in a sled after hitting either another tobogganer, a stationary object like a tree, rock or car, or having the surface change from snow to pavement.

The biggest factor in preventing serious injuries is the ability to maintain downhill control. Dr. Francescutti said that sitting or kneeling ensures control and maximum visibility.

"The funnest way is sliding down a hill headfirst but isn't the wisest way to do it," he said. "If your head and neck are at the front when riding in a tube or sled, obviously they're going to absorb that kinetic impact as opposed to going feet first."

Dr. Francescutti added that riders should stay away from alcohol or marijuana as they reduce rider's control and may give them courage to take greater risks.

The more people riding in a sled increases the toboggan's momentum and multiplies the risk of injury. "The more people in the sled, the faster that sled will be going," he said.

Most parents know that helmets are a no-brainer but they can make the mistake of using bicycle helmets rather than hockey or ski helmets for their kids, said Dr. Tator.

"Bicycle helmets are designed to take one hit. The second hit will not have the same cushioning response from the helmet," said Dr. Tator, who studies concussions and injuries in recreational activities.

"Hockey helmets can take multiple hits – both the shell and the absorbing material are designed for that."