Head injuries a growing concern for tobogganers

Snow safety: Carol O’Neill poses with her three grandsons (from left to right) Julian, Justin and Trey while tobogganing at Riverdale Park over March break. The boys don’t have to wear helmets when going down the hill.
Snow safety: Carol O’Neill poses with her three grandsons (from left to right) Julian, Justin and Trey while tobogganing at Riverdale Park over March break. The boys don’t have to wear helmets when going down the hill. (Derek Morrison)

As children across the Greater Toronto Area celebrate their week of freedom thanks to March break, many are presented with ample amounts of free time to fill with friends and family. For those families who decided against taking a trip to warmer climates, tobogganing remains a popular family activity during the break – and any snowy day.

Though tobogganing normally resonates thoughts of fun and happiness, there lingers a growing concern across the province of Ontario and the country that the injury rate is too high in the activity.

In a December 2007 report issued by ThinkFirst – a foundation created by the National Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Prevention Foundation – found tobogganing as a high-risk activity, ranking fourth in the province behind only diving, snowmobiling and parachuting. Even more alarming, the activity ranks ahead of known risky activities such as hockey, skiing and biking. The study focused on catastrophic injuries per 100,000 participants.

The Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program (CHIRPP) found that of all tobogganing injuries, less than one per cent of those injured had been wearing a safety helmet.

With the statistics in mind in the past year some people, including city councilors and injury prevention groups, have tried to push a bylaw that would require children to wear helmets while tobogganing.

Sandy Wells, who works for the ThinkFirst foundation and also co-wrote the 2007 report, believes that two strong sides to the argument exist.

“On the one hand there are the people who believe that too much protection for children would be harmful. They think they need to get out there and scrape their knees,” Wells said. “But, on the other hand, head and brain injuries are so bad that they are worth prevention.”

Wells said the foundation does not have a political agenda on the issue, but the city of Vaughan contacted ThinkFirst to do research on the topic.

“I think (a bylaw) has support from councillors in Vaughan, so it has the potential to pass there,” Wells said.

Wells noted that the statistics of injuries while tobogganing are kept by the hospitals, which do not release details on an annual basis.

“The hospital data we do have is based on 2002 (statistics). Most of (the injuries) we do know from this year come from parents who want to bring the issue to the media,” Wells added.

The city of Toronto has yet to have the bylaw proposed at city hall. John Parker, the councillor in Don Valley West, understands the risks involved, but does not see any bylaw being presented on the horizon.

“We all want to take any practical measure to ensure our kids safety,” Parker said. “But, with that said, head injuries in tobogganing (in Don Valley West) are rare to the point of it being a freak accident.”

According to the ThinkFirst report, the lowest rates of emergency tobogganing injuries occurred in the Toronto region, which could indicate why the city is not prepared to propose a bylaw at the present time.

“I have seen nothing to satisfy me to the point where we need to make helmets necessary in our area,” Parker said. “I see no circumstances (with tobogganing) that should create a cause for concern.”