Sledging bans - coming to a town near you?

A young girl rides a sled. Image copyright Getty Images

Children take note. As winter sets in, a growing number of US cities are banning sledging - or sledding, as Americans say - on public property.

The Associated Press reports that municipal officials in places like Iowa, New Jersey, Nebraska and Indiana are worried about lawsuits when children are injured in sledging accidents. They often cite a 2000 incident in which the family of a girl in Omaha, Nebraska, won a $2m (£1.32m) judgement against the city after she was paralysed while sledding in a local park.

According to research by Nationwide Children's Hospital at Ohio State University, each year from 1997 to 2007 more than 20,000 children under the age of 17 required emergency room trips after sledging accidents, and 4.1% of the cases required hospitalisation.

The article quotes Kenneth Bond, a New York lawyer who works with municipal governments, as saying the "Wild West philosophy" of individual responsibility is a thing of the past, and governments are now expected to take measures to prevent dangerous activities where possible.

Conservative and libertarian writers have latched onto the story as evidence of the growing threat of big government and the rise of the "nanny state".

"It's excessive overreach to dictate to the masses what outdoor activities it can and cannot participate in," writes the Boston Herald's Adriana Cohen. "It's an encroachment on our collective freedoms to have elected officials making private decisions for us. Individuals should weigh risks - should risk even present itself - and not have day-to-day life decisions made for us by bureaucrats."

Reason magazine's Robby Soave says local governments can't seem to find a middle ground. "It seems to me there is some comfortable room between the Wild West frontier of days past and the bubble-wrapped nanny state we live in now," he writes. "Perhaps the government could protect our basic safety needs while still allowing for a bit of winter fun?"

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sledging likely has been around as long as snow and children

Others say local governments are just reflecting a US society that is overly litigious and fearful of the slightest danger.

Lenore Skenzy, an advocate for giving children more freedom and unsupervised time, says that stories of traumatic childhood injuries make her "ache with sadness and terror". She writes that sledging bans, however, are evidence of a society that "puts 100% safety above any other cause, including fairness, convenience, exercise, rationality - and delight."

"While the no-sledding towns sound like killjoys, perhaps the issue is really us, unable to hold these two ideas in our brain at once: sledding is fun and, once in a long while, deadly," she writes. "Sled at your own risk."

The Economist's Will Wilkinson writes that this is only the latest in a US trend that has seen the disappearance of diving platforms at public swimming pools and all but the tamest playground equipment.

"This crackdown on unregulated sledding seems of a piece with the recent American tendency to curb marginally perilous childhood pleasures, such as tricycling without body armour or venturing alone into the back garden without a Mossad-trained security detail," he says.

He adds that studies have found that while Americans aren't as lawsuit-crazy as it seems, they are "unusually fearful, and this fearfulness extends to the prospect of lawsuits".

"Shutting down sledding hills is inspired by the same sort of simpering caution that keeps Americans shoeless in airport security lines and, closer to home, keeps parents from letting their kids walk a few blocks to school alone, despite the fact that America today is as safe as the longed-for Leave It to Beaver golden age," he writes.

A closer inspection of the Omaha case tends to bear this out. While it is held up as a cautionary tale for US towns, there were some circumstances that made the case particularly unusual. The state supreme court that upheld the judgement, for instance, found that the city had planted the tree that caused the girl's injury at the base of the popular sledging hill despite warnings from neighbours and the city forester.

"The city, as the owner of a public park historically used for sledding, knew that the crab apple trees posed a risk to those who used the park for sledding, yet took no action to decrease or eliminate the risk," the court ruled.

There's at least one example of a town that has found a way to avoid outright bans - which, as the Associated Press notes, tend to be largely ignored by sledgers anyway. After numerous incidents on a manmade hill in Cincinnati, Ohio, city planners planted brush on a particularly dangerous portion and reduced the angle on the hill's other slope

In more mountainous parts of the US, however, such targeted solutions are not practical, as every incline becomes a possible wintery course.

Perhaps a new latinised phrase needs to be added to the US legal lexicon.

Caveat traheator - "sledger beware".