As his 10-year-old son, Wesley, bombed down a snow-packed hill Monday afternoon in Johnson County, Russell Pope smiled.
“Keep going, son!” he yelled. “Have fun.”
After a mostly snowless winter, the Overland Park man enjoyed finally getting to sled with his children on the Presidents Day holiday. But in a growing number of cities, something else has kept kids off the hills.
Dubuque, Iowa, is the latest city to give the traditional winter pastime the cold shoulder. In January, city council members voted to ban sledding in 48 of the city’s 50 public parks and impose a $750 fine on repeat offenders.
Other cities, including Des Moines, Iowa, Montville, N.J., Lincoln, Neb., and Columbia City, Ind., have taken less drastic measures, banning sledding only on the most dangerous hills, requiring helmets, outlawing jumping ramps and thin sledding sheets or posting sternly worded warning signs that inform thrill seekers that they’re sledding at their own risk. In Paxton, Ill., park officials even removed a steep sledding mound.
The reason? Someone might get hurt. More to the point: Someone might sue.
“Sledding is a risky activity,” Dubuque’s city attorney wrote in proposing the ban. “It’s not unusual for people to talk about their accidents or near accidents along with the fun times they’ve had.”
Nationwide, sledding injuries sent nearly 230,000 kids to emergency rooms between 1997 and 2007, according to the Center for Injury Research and Policy, based in Columbus, Ohio.
And then there are the multimillion-dollar judgments against cities following serious sledding injuries: $2.4 million to the family of an Omaha, Neb., 5-year-old who became paralyzed after her sled hit a tree; $2.75 million to a Sioux City, Iowa, man who injured his spinal cord after crashing into a stop sign; $12 million to a Boone, Iowa, sledder who collided with a concrete cube.
But for some cities, banning sledding is not so easy. Omaha prohibited sledding at a popular hill as a test after settling its lawsuit but allowed it again after residents ignored the ban. As city attorney Tom Mumgaard put it: “It wasn’t practical.”
Instead, the city posted warning signs, stationed sentries at the hill and put hay bales around trees and pads around posts.
Neither Kansas City nor Overland Park, the metro area’s two largest cities, have considered a sledding ban.
“There are always liability risks in many different areas, but while there has been no conversation about banning sledding in Kansas City, we are aware that other cities are looking at that issue,” said Kansas City spokesman Chris Hernandez. “We will continue to monitor that.”
Overland Park will, too, said city spokesman Sean Reilly, although he said most of the city’s best sledding hills are on private property.
At the Cleveland Chiropractic College in Overland Park (south of Interstate 435 near Antioch Road), where Russell Pope’s family was sledding Monday, landowners have taken precautions by putting hay bales in front of light poles and a fire hydrant.
Pope said he hoped the concern for safety wouldn’t become an outright ban.
“Kids’ safety is paramount to us parents,” he said. “But there’s always a risk. And I understand there’s money involved, but you can’t take all the joy out of being a kid. If you don’t go sledding in the winter, all you’ve got is your iPad and SpongeBob. I’d rather they get out there and get some exercise.”
In most states — including Missouri and Kansas — “recreational use” statutes shield cities from liability for injuries resulting from sledding. But, unlike Missouri and Kansas, Iowa’s statute does not specifically mention sledding. A bill to extend state protection to that activity failed in the last two legislative sessions.
Dubuque officials say that while they don’t want to play the Grinch, they have a responsibility to protect taxpayers financially. They say they will reverse the ban if the state protection ever succeeds.
Such a statute offering near-blanket immunity protected Circleville, Ohio, in a 2006 sledding injury lawsuit that the state Supreme Court ultimately decided in 2013. The town was sued after 18-year-old Jeremy Pauley struck a railroad tie while sledding in a city park and became paralyzed from the neck down. The court ruled that the city was not liable for Pauley’s injuries, even if the park posed a hazard.
Sledding-related lawsuits in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio have not prevailed because of similar statutes, but those statutes are not ironclad and are often applied and interpreted differently, experts say.
While Dubuque, which has many steep hills, has protected itself financially, it may have unintentionally made sledding more dangerous, said Craig Lawson, a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law who specializes in tort law.
“It may have invited more injuries if it has driven kids off the hills and into the streets,” Lawson said. “The parents ought to be getting out there yelling at the elected officials and telling them they’ve made sledding more dangerous for their kids.”
Indeed, a study by a Seattle hospital found that the odds of going to an emergency room for sledding injuries were five times higher in children who had been sledding on the street compared with a park. What’s more, injuries sustained from street sledding typically are worse and more likely to involve traumatic brain injuries.
Dubuque’s sledding ban has spawned many protests, and not just by kids. Following the action, two middle-aged brothers slid down a hill holding signs. One read “Don’t tread on my sled!”
Lawson said cities used to be more universally protected from liability than they are now: “If you went sledding, you understood that it was inherently dangerous and did so at your own risk,” he said. But toward the end of the last century, laws evolved so that juries would weigh the negligence of defendants — the cities — as well as plaintiffs.
The result? More successful lawsuits.
The question is whether a municipality could foresee a risk, he said. “So if you create a sledding hill and right at the bottom is a large hard object that you could hit, a jury could decide that a reasonable city would have taken steps to make the hill safer.”
Meanwhile, back on the Overland Park sledding hill, 11-year Lydia Pope frowned when she considered the possibility of a sledding ban.
“I wouldn’t like it,” she said. “Sledding is what you do when there is snow!”
Safety tips for sledders
Various experts recommend:
▪ Wear a helmet. The most common body part to be hurt while sledding is the head. If you wear a helmet while skiing, riding a motorcycle or skateboarding, why not while sledding?
▪ Avoid thin plastic sledding sheets. You can cut yourself riding over rocks or other sharp objects. Choose sturdier sleds that offer more protection.
▪ One person per sled. Unless you’re in a toboggan or other sled specifically designed for more than one person, don’t increase your risk of injury. The more riders, the more chance for someone to get thrown off, and hurt.
▪ Take turns. The more people who sled down a hill at once, the more chance for collisions.
▪ Ensure a clear path. Make sure the hill is clear of fences, trees, utility poles or other objects. Injuries are more far more likely if you bang into something than if you fall off a sled.
▪ Get out of the way. After finishing a sledding run, or even falling off a sled, move quickly and safely to the side.
▪ Resist the temptation to supercharge the experience. Never sled while being pulled by a car or other vehicle.