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Helmets for riding the hills? Trauma doctors want to step up sledding safety

Isaac Jones, 7, rides with his brother Gus, 11, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, at Edgewood Golf Course, Fargo. Trauma specialists in the Twin Cities are recommending helmets be used while sledding.Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

FARGO — Safety experts advise parents to put helmets on their children for a variety of activities, and now, some say it's time to add sledding to that list.

A couple of pediatric trauma doctors in the Twin Cities issued a safety alert earlier this month saying children riding sleds, tubes or toboggans should wear helmets based on head-injury data they recently compiled.

Dr. Michael McGonigal, director of trauma services at Regions Hospital and Gillette Children's, both in St. Paul, said skiers and snowboarders are getting the message and others should follow suit.

"Over the past decade, helmet use is up and injuries are being prevented, but we're not paying enough attention to sledders," McGonigal said.

Records were reviewed for 150 patients between ages 5 and 19 who were treated for injuries received while sledding, downhill skiing or snowboarding from November 2013 to March 2015.

They showed head trauma accounts for one-third of all sledding-related ER visits, similar to skiing and snowboarding-related visits.

The recommendation for helmets while sledding was met with early skepticism from a few parents in the F-M area.

Jill Vadnie of West Fargo, N.D., mother to a 5- and 2-year-old, said she went sledding all the time as a child and "turned out fine."

"I think it's not necessary for my kids and I probably won't do it," Vadnie said, but added the decision could depend on the size of the hill.

Her friend Holly Reinert of Moorhead, Minn., who also has children ages 5 and 2, said she likely wouldn't put them in helmets to sled, either.

"The only time I have them wear helmets is when they're riding bike," Reinert said.

But Belinda Knight of Parkersburg, W. Va., visiting her 2-year-old grandson in Fargo, fully embraces the idea of sledding helmets.

"We want them to be protected when they're out on their bikes, if they're on four wheelers, if they're on mini bikes. We want to protect them in any way we can, so I agree," Knight said.

Elizabeth Oestreich, injury prevention coordinator at Sanford Health, thinks helmets are important for sledding and all winter sports.

She also recognizes that North Dakota's sledding hills are usually tame compared to other areas.

"I always would put it back on the parents to review the terrain," Oestreich said, taking into account steepness, obstacles like trees and rocks and debris, like ice chunks.

Some parents ask her if kids can wear their bike helmets to sled. While that's "better than nothing," she doesn't recommend it.

For the first time, Sanford Health's Safety Shoppe will stock helmets designed for skiing, snowboarding and sledding, along with its usual safety gear. They'll sell for $20 — the same price Sanford is paying for them.

Fargo's primary sledding hills on Fargo Park District property at Edgewood Chalet and Mickelson Park just opened for the season on Dec. 16.

Dave Klundt, assistant director of recreation, said they don't require helmets but he would encourage kids to wear them.

"I'd rather have people mad at me," Klundt said, than for someone to get hurt.