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Why sledding is on a slippery slope

Sledding may be on a hill to nowhere.

More municipalities are taking the step of banning the time-honored winter pastime, citing legal costs and insurance payouts that amount into the tens of millions. While it may seem as if these cities are channeling the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge, they argue that the benefits don't outweigh the risks of sledding, which lead to thousands of injuries annually.

Take Dubuque, Iowa, a hilly city that's dotted with 50 parks that entice its residents to take advantage of winter activities. But the city council is moving forward with a plan to ban sledding in all but two of the parks, citing the sport's inherent risks and the city's lack of ordinances that provide immunity to lawsuits related to sliding down on a snowy slope.

"Sledding is a risky activity. Anyone that sleds knows that," Dubuque city attorney Barry Lindahl and leisure services manager Marie Ware wrote last month in a letter proposing the ban. "In conversations about sledding it is not unusual for people to talk about their accidents or near accidents along with the fun times they've had."

Their letter highlighted six-figure legal settlements that hit other wintry municipalities, including Omaha, Nebraska, and Boone, Iowa. In the Omaha case, the city paid $2.4 million to a family after their daughter's sled hit a tree, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down. In Boone, the city council agreed to pay $12 million after a sledder hit a concrete cube at the hill's base.

While those accidents and legal settlements may be severe, it's not uncommon for sledders to come off a hill with an injury. A study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital found that more than 229,000 children and teenagers were treated in emergency rooms for sledding-related injuries between 1997 to 2007.

About one-quarter of the injuries are fractures, while bruises and cuts comprise another 25 percent of reported sledding injuries. But the study also found that the head was the most commonly injured body part, and that collisions were more likely to result in a traumatic brain injury.

Other cities that have banned sledding include Montville, New Jersey, and Lincoln, Nebraska, The Associated Press notes.

Officials in Paxton, Illinois, took their efforts to an extreme, going so far as to actually remove a hill in a a city park rather than risk injury and lawsuits from a sledding accident.

"The insurance would have skyrocketed if someone was hurt," city park board member Kay McCabe told the Champaign, Illinois-based News-Gazette.

Sledding aficionados won't be bereft of their favorite winter activity in Dubuque, however. The city plans to keep two sledding areas open, albeit with plenty of warnings about risk and how to sled safely. According to proposed signage for the two sledding hills, sledders will be warned to "NEVER, EVER ride head first on a sled" and that they "assume all risk of injury or damage resulting from sledding activity."

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