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Skating Toward In-Line Safety


Hardly anyone doubts that in-line skating is due for another huge jump in popularity this year. If the sport's booming growth holds steady, there will be more than 17 million skaters in the United States alone.

And hardly anyone doubts that there will be growth in emergency room business, too, also thanks to in-line skating's popularity. A parade of fractured wrists and battered heads is expected to increase along with the number of novices strapping on the skates, then losing control of them.

Is this because the sport is inherently dangerous? For the first time, someone with some clout is saying yes. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, conceding that its investigators have found nothing wrong with the skates' manufacture or design, nonetheless labeled the sport "dangerous" in a recent press release.

An accompanying report stated that there were twice as many in-line skate injuries through May of this year than in the same period last year. The report estimates that by the end of the year, emergency rooms will have treated 83,000 such injuries, a one-year increase of 124%. The report has alarmed the industry and skaters alike, who fear that government regulation may be in store. The commission is doing little to ease that anxiety.

"What we've said so far is we haven't found anything specifically wrong with the skate," says George Rutherford, an injury statistician for the commission. "Don't read anything more than that into it. It doesn't mean we believe all the skates are safe. Obviously, it is a dangerous activity."

The industry's trade association has countered that the commission report is misleading and distorts the actual dangers involved. Traditional skates or skateboards produce more injuries, a spokesman says, a contention confirmed recently in a study released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But none of the statistics include the rate of injury--how many injuries occur per individual outing.

Ironically, both the industry and the commission tend to agree on the major cause of in-line skate injuries: inexperience and lack of training.

"We have not completed a detailed analysis yet," says Rutherford, "but my impression is that stunting or hotdogging or outrageous behavior are not big contributors to the number of injuries. . . . One of the biggest contributors was the inexperience factor."

"It's more of a behavior issue," says Maureen O'Neill, spokeswoman for Rollerblade Inc., developers of the modern in-line skate. "With any action sport, you really need to take a lesson first so you can control the skates. You can't just go out there and start skating. You need to be educated."


What sets in-line skates apart is their four (and sometimes five) wheels set in single file from toe to heel, making them resemble ice skates more than traditional roller skates. Because the wheels are much narrower than roller skate wheels, in-line skates create less friction against the pavement, which means more speed. Some skaters have been clocked at faster than 30 m.p.h., and good skaters can smoothly sustain speeds around 15 m.p.h., about as fast as a cruising bicycle.

"It's overly simplistic, but the fact is, you've got wheels on your feet," Rutherford says. "You can expect to fall down at some time. The question is how badly you fall down."

It doesn't take much to suffer significant injury, says Philip Macneil, an occasional in-line skater and an emergency-room doctor at UCI Medical Center in Orange.

Many injuries occur when skaters are going slow, not fast, he says. "They're trying to stop or are nearly stopped, and they klutz out, fall on their butts with their hands at their sides and fracture their wrists."

The safety commission's statistics show that fractured wrists are the most common injury, a fourth of all injuries. They occur because people who are falling forward or backward instinctively hold out their arms, hands bent back, to break the fall. Instead, they break the forearm bones just below the wrist joint.


Head injuries are less common--about 18% of all injuries--but much more serious, Macneil says. "Big deal, you break a wrist. No one dies of that. But head injuries, they can result in significant, permanent disability."

Skaters who fall instinctively extend their arms to prevent their heads from hitting the pavement, but if moving at high speed, arm strength will not be sufficient, Macneil says. Under those circumstances, "if you go down, your head is going to hit the ground."

What leads to these falls is the nature of in-line skating itself, Macneil says. "You're pretending that your center of mass is at your feet, because that's where all the action is going on, but it's at your hips." So when something like a crack or hole in the sidewalk suddenly stops or slows down the skates, your body continues forward, rotating around your hips like a falling propeller.

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