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Deep freeze tobogganing ban: York Region sledders

Jan. 22, 2015
By Lisa Queen

On a drizzly Sunday morning, Georgina’s Brimble and Luknar families were not about to allow a little bit of rain let their tobogganing plans slide away.

Sledding with the kids on a January day is about as Canadian as it gets, they said.

That’s why the families are giving the cold shoulder to a seemingly growing trend among municipalities to restrict or ban tobogganing due to an insurance and liability chill in the wake of sledding injuries and deaths.

The issue has become a hot topic this winter after Orangeville posted a new sign advising would-be tobogganers the activity is prohibited on a popular hill.

Hamilton has banned tobogganing for about 40 years after being hit with a $900,000 lawsuit following a sledding incident.

Tobogganing can be risky, although Lisa Joyce, vice-president of corporate communications and engagement at Markham Stouffville Hospital, said the emergency department hasn’t seen a significant number of injuries in recent years and hasn’t tagged the activity as an area of concern.

York Region EMS doesn’t keep statistics on calls related to winter sports and activities.

Still, tobogganing is the fifth leading winter sport or recreational activity sending Canadians to the hospital for treatment, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

In 2010/2011, the latest year for which data is available, 171 Canadians went to hospital suffering from a tobogganing injury.

Skiing and snowboarding topped the list with 2,329 hospitalization injuries, followed by snowmobiling at 1,126, ice hockey at 1,114 and ice skating at 889.

While York Region public health doesn’t advise against tobogganing, it does acknowledge the activity’s hazards.

“Tobogganing traditionally involves a lot of people of different ages and abilities on a hill with no organized structure,” Cindy O’Keefe, a public health nurse in injury and substance misuse prevention services, said.

Teenagers and children are excited and often not paying attention to what’s going on around them, she said.

Head injuries and broken bones are the more frequent types of tobogganing injuries, said O’Keefe, who recommends wearing a helmet on the hills.

As Ian Brimble grabbed an inner tube from the family car and his wife, Erin, made sure their seven-year-old son Liam and five-year-old daughter Maya were bundled up for a couple hours of sledding at the Town of Georgina’s ROC facility, the Willow Beach father said banning tobogganing is not the answer.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think they should manage it rather than ban it. What Georgina has done here, they manage it. It’s done safely, it’s controlled,” he said.

“I think you minimize injury that way. I don’t think you ban it altogether and wash your hands of it, because it’s going to happen regardless. I think people are going to toboggan anyway. It’s like pond hockey and that kind of thing. It’s tradition.”

Tobogganing is a cheap activity, can easily be fit into a family’s free time and kids love it, Brimble said.

Keswick parents Tomas and Veronika Luknar, parents of 10-year-old Nicolas and nine-year-old Stephanie, also oppose tobogganing bans, arguing it’s up to parents to ensure their children participate in all activities safely.

Keswick's Stephanie Luknar went tobogganing at Georgina's ROC Sunday.

“I don’t agree with it. I think the kids should have an opportunity to get out and enjoy the winter. As long as it’s supervised, as long as it’s done in a safe manner, definitely it shouldn’t be something they want to ban,” Tomas said.

“They (children) could get hurt on a bike, they could get hurt on a snowboard, they could get hurt on a scooter. It’s up to parents to understand what their kids are capable of and make a judgment for them.”

With the amount of time children and teenagers spend in front of screens these days, it would be a shame to ban them from an activity that gets them out into the fresh air, Veronika added.

Worried about reports of tobogganing injuries and deaths in other jurisdictions, Vaughan began operating a sledding hill at Uplands Golf and Ski Club in 2009, which costs the city about $2,500 annually to inspect and set up hay bales.

Vaughan wanted to provide a safe place to toboggan rather than tell residents they couldn’t enjoy a quintessential Canadian pastime, Councillor Mario Ferri said.

“It’s in our DNA,” he joked.

“That (Uplands) is the hill the city feels confident to say, ‘Come and use this because we’ve done all the prep work prior to the season. There are inspections to make sure it’s free of obstacles that may cause injuries, there is enough snow and so on’.”

Zoran Postic, the city’s director of transportation services, parks and forestry operations, isn’t aware of any tobogganing injuries at Uplands since the hill opened.

Meanwhile, the city bans tobogganing and other winter sports such as snowmobiling on other city properties, he said.

The maximum fine is $2,000.

Meanwhile, the city is looking to accommodate activities such as tobogganing, mountain biking and skateboarding at future parks, Postic said.

The issue of banning or restricting tobogganing is not an issue in Richmond Hill and Newmarket, mayors Dave Barrow and Tony Van Bynen said.

The town will only address the issue if its insurance company demands it, Barrow added.

As long as it’s done safely, tobogganing is a fun activity, Van Bynen said.

“Getting out and enjoying winter activities is a part of being Canadian. The town works hard to try and maintain good/safe conditions where people gather to enjoy winter recreation around our town,” he said in an email.

“People should always exercise caution and good judgment for their own personal safety and for their kids in areas where winter activities take place around town.”

Tobogganing tips

Cindy O’Keefe, a York Region public health nurse in injury and substance misuse prevention services, offers tips to make tobogganing safer:

Wear a helmet. A snow-sport helmet is best, although a hockey helmet is also good. Make sure it fits properly.

The safest position when tobogganing is sitting up and facing forward. Sledding on your stomach going down the hill head-first is the least safe position. Lying on your back can leave you open to spinal injuries.

Check the hill to make sure it is free of any hazards. Don’t toboggan near trees, roads, rivers or railroads. Make sure there is plenty of room at the bottom of the hill to stop safely.

Avoid ice-covered areas.

Inspect your toboggan to make sure it’s in good condition and things such as brakes and steering are working properly if your sled offers those features.

Avoid using inner tubes and plastic disks because they are more difficult to control.

Look out for other tobogganers coming down the hill. Walk up at the side of the hill away from the sliding area.
Don’t toboggan at night.

Dress warmly in layers to avoid hypothermia. This is especially necessary for young tobogganers under the age of three.