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Spills, and chills

In a car-seat culture, sledding's free-for-all spirit stands out - and leads some to seek new safety rules

At Mount Hood Golf Course in Melrose, Keith Mento of Saugus sledded downhill. At Mount Hood Golf Course in Melrose, Keith Mento of Saugus sledded downhill. (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)
By Keith O'Brien
Globe Staff / February 1, 2009
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MELROSE - Half way down the hill, picking up speed, Denis Taylor hit the ramps that other children had sculpted into the snow, lost control of his plastic toboggan, spun around, and went overboard.

The 9-year-old boy was fine, all smiles in his winter coat and hat. But another boy was coming now, headed right for him, and his mother, Rene Taylor, began to shout from the top of the hill amid the sprawling, wooded, 26-acre Mount Hood Golf Course in Melrose.

"Denis," she said, "look out!"

The boys narrowly missed each other. And neither seemed to think anything about what might have happened if they had collided. But Melrose Mayor Robert Dolan thinks about such things a lot at this time of year.

With each winter snowfall not only come crowds, Dolan said, but the potential for injuries - like those suffered already this season in Raynham, Chelmsford, and North Reading - or worse. Within six days last month, two young girls died in sledding accidents in upstate New York.

"It's real serious," said Dolan. "I do think about someone going into a tree. It could happen in the city of Melrose. No doubt about it."

In a regulated world, where children are consigned to ride in car seats for years, forced to wear helmets while bicycling, and lorded over by anxious parents worried about just about everything, there remains at least one final frontier of unbridled freedom: the great American sled hill.

There, it seems, just about anything goes. Want to climb aboard a snow tube with a friend and spin headlong down a hill? Fine. Want to hurtle, head first, toward a parking lot or a grove of trees on a thin sheet of plastic? Have at it. Sledding is not only a time-honored tradition; it is the epitome of what many of today's parents desperately want. A child who's sledding is playing outside with friends.

But the recent sledding accidents in Massachusetts, and the shocking deaths in New York, have cast a stark light once more on the dangers associated with sledding and forced town officials, worried about liability, to reexamine their sledding policies.

Some communities, like Raynham, along with many private golf courses, have chosen to ban sledding at certain locations in recent years. Others, after consulting with lawyers, have posted signs warning people that they are sledding at their own risk. And some people are pushing for a law that would require children, 12 and younger, to wear a helmet while sledding.

"Sledding, we take it for granted sometimes. But it's a very dangerous activity in that there can be very serious injuries if something goes wrong," said state Senator Steven Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat who has sponsored the mandatory helmet bill. "There are no brakes on a sled."

Panagiotakos argues that a state that requires children to wear helmets while bicycling - as Massachusetts does - should mandate the same equipment for sledding. But police wonder how they would enforce such a law, and town officials are just as mystified about how to restrict access to snow-covered hills or regulate an activity that, by its very nature, encourages chaos.

Spills, falls, flips, and crashes - the events that make town officials anxious - are the very things that make sledding fun. And then there's this wrinkle: State law protects landowners, including municipalities, from liability so long as they aren't charging a sledding fee or operating with "willful" negligence, and that means there's a compelling argument not to regulate the activity at all, said David R. Lucas, special counsel for Melrose.

"Unfortunately, the more you regulate it, the more likely you are to incur liability," Lucas said. "If you say, 'Sled here, in these marked lanes,' and something happens in those marked lanes, the city's in trouble."

And so, as the issue is debated, sledding remains pretty much what it was a generation ago: a wintertime free-for-all. The only difference, said Brookline town counsel Jennifer Dopazo, is that city officials and private landowners are now well aware of the activity's inherent risks.

"Anybody could fall off their sled, break their neck, or hit a tree. And it's tragic," said Dopazo. "But where do you draw the line? Do you post a police officer up there after every snowstorm?"

Roughly 22,870 people are injured each year while sledding, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But what troubles doctors more than the number of sled-related injuries is the sort of injuries they see. One 2005 study, published in the journal Pediatric Emergency Care, found that head and neck injuries accounted for more than 50 percent of sled-related emergency room visits.

"A lot of people think, 'Sledding - oh, it's OK. Go on out and play,' " said Dr. Denise Toshach, a pediatric specialist at Lowell General Hospital. "But when kids are sledding, they need supervision. They need to be wearing helmets. They need to be on a sled that they can steer. And they need to be sitting up, not lying down."

As usual this winter, plenty of people have ignored such advice. Two girls, riding in a snow tube, bumped heads last month while sledding in Chelmsford, sending one of them to the hospital. In North Reading, on New Year's Day, a 40-year-old Everett man, sledding with his daughter, slammed into a tree and needed to be airlifted to a Boston hospital. The man survived, but two New York girls - 12-year-old Taylor Denson and 13-year-old Aleyris Martinez - were less fortunate last month.

Denson, sledding in a city-owned reservoir in Syracuse, crashed head first into a parked car, suffered massive head injuries, and died three days later on Jan. 13. Less than a week later, Martinez, sledding on a golf course in the hamlet of Thiells, just north of New York City, hit a tree, went into cardiac arrest, and died on the hill.

The deaths have sparked many a kitchen table conversation about what happened. Neither girl was wearing a helmet. And both were riding on snow tubes, a popular way to sled, but not necessarily the safest. Tubes, once they get going, begin to bounce around "like trampolines," said Melrose Fire Chief John O'Brien, making them virtually impossible to stop or steer. And yet, children are using them all the time, or making other risky choices, like riding head first down hills.

"On a piece of plastic. On pure ice. It never ceases to amaze me," said Joan Bell, the superintendent of Mount Hood, the municipally owned but privately operated golf course in Melrose. "Just put a piece of plastic under you. Go down a hill - with trees on both sides. And go for it."

To make the dangers known, Bell started posting signs in Melrose a few years ago, warning people that they were sledding at their own risk. In Brookline, officials place hay bales around trees on popular town-owned hills. And in Wilmington, just last year, officials decided to place two tires around an exposed pipe on a hill at the Woburn Street School. It was a precaution that came too late for one sledder.

On a school snow day in January last year, Beth Doherty, then 15, went to the hill with a friend to go sledding on a snow tube. On just the second run of the day, Doherty laid down and her friend laid down on top of her and, together, they sped off, spinning down the hill through the deep, powdery snow, right into the exposed pipe. On impact, Doherty fractured her skull in three places and cracked a vertebra in her neck. She survived and avoided paralysis, but had to be hospitalized for eight days, didn't return to school until last fall, and will live with the lingering effects of her injuries for years.

Her short-term memory comes and goes. She fatigues easily. She can no longer play sports like she once did. And with the return of winter this year, Doherty said, she has been having trouble sleeping at night.

"I haven't had any dreams related to the accident," she said. "But I'm just on high alert, worried about slipping or falling."

The snow and ice, she said, is a reminder of what happened last year, and she is trying to move on.

Doherty's sledding days are over.

Keith O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com.

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