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.
This is where protective equipment comes in, and it is recommended by manufacturers, instructors, physicians and the safety commission. Those who need it most, however--young teens and preteens who compose the majority of in-line skaters--are most susceptible to peer pressure to look "cool."
"It's the vanity issue," Rutherford says. "It's not an injury issue to them. It's whether it looks dorky. They weigh it this way: 'I did this once, and I didn't fall down.' Probably a person who falls down the first time and bumps the head wears a helmet the rest of the time."
Macneil rates the helmet as the most important item of safety equipment. Wrist guards help prevent wrist fractures. Elbow and knee guards probably do little to prevent fractures but will protect against abrasion of the soft tissues, the "road rash" notorious among skaters.
But probably the most neglected safety device is an introductory skating lesson, Macneil says. Manufacturers and the industry's trade association, the International In-Line Skating Assn., are pushing hard to persuade both novice skaters to take a lesson and retailers to offer them free. Many do.
"The biggest thing we try to get across is this is a new sport and practically everyone is a beginner," says Dave Cooper, who overseas instructor certification for the trade association.
"There's no daddy to hold you up and run down the sidewalk with you. You started on an 'easy' bike, but people go out and get good skates, fast skates, and they get past their abilities, especially downhill.
"I have a lesson with a woman tomorrow. She was going slightly downhill, saw a car coming that she had not anticipated, and she didn't have enough confidence to apply the heel brake. She landed on her tailbone. Not hurt bad, but she scared herself. Now she's coming in for a lesson."
A lesson teaches the very basics--starting, turning and stopping, with the emphasis on stopping, Cooper says, "because it seems to be what most people are anxious about."
Everything about in-line skating is easier than traditional roller skating, Cooper says. But using the brake pad attached to an in-line skate's heel seems alien to the beginner, and few learn to use it properly, he says. Consequently, it has a poor reputation among skaters when, in fact, "it's perfectly effective. It's no problem for people who have had real practice to stop in the same distance as a bicycle."
The technique, he says, is "pretty simple" and is the same for any speed. Weight is transferred to one foot and the other foot is thrust forward, then tipped back on the rear wheel, thereby levering the brake pad against the pavement.
Other methods of speed control are the tight turn, which is difficult to do at high speeds; the "snowplow," that is, turning the toes slightly inward, which slows you down, and the "T-stop," that is, dragging one skate sideways behind you, which chews up wheels but is the closest skaters get to a panic stop.
"There are all sorts of brake designs out there to address the fear that the current brakes don't work, but I haven't seen a design that's better than the standard heel brake," Cooper says.
All seem to agree that there are virtues to in-line skating. It is a good aerobic exercise, helps tone the major muscles of the lower body and, when the skater remains upright, is easy on the joints. Conclusions about its safety, however, must wait for the next generation of research, says Dr. Richard A. Schieber of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
In the meantime, Henry Zuver, executive director of the skating association, says he is confident about in-line skating's future.
"Done in the proper manner, this is a good activity. I think future studies will bear that out."
The Wheel Thing
In-line skating, a warm-weather alternative to ice skating, has taken to the streets with a vengeance. Witness the dramatically increasing popularity of this latest fitness trend: The estimated 12.6 million skaters in the U.S. last year represented a 37% increase over the previous year. And nearly half of all skaters consider themselves beginners. The lowdown on getting in-line:
* Evolution Shoe skate: Popularized in the 1950s and 1960s, a key adjusted skate length Roller skate: 1960s saw advent of rubberized wheels and roller rinks; wooden wheels were the rage starting as far back as the 1770s In-line skates: Popularity boomed in early 1980s after the founding of Rollerblade Inc. * Major Brake-Through
The new Rollerblade brake system increases control while cornering or stopping. Byconnecting an adjustable brake to a hinged cuff on the shoe, skaters stop without lifting wheels off the ground. Baby Steps: Once standing is mastered, skaters can work on basics. Striding: Start by standing with toes pointed out. Push inside edge of one skate whileshifting weight to opposite foot. Glide. Repeat by shifting weight onto other foot and pushing off. New way: With adjustable brakes, roll skate forward and straighten leg until brake pad touches ground. Old way: Lift toe until brake pad touches pavement. * Pad Your Assets
Use protective gear designed with flexibility and extra padding. And make sure to try on everything before buying. Wrist guard: Thick rubber; locking feature prevents wrist hyperextension Elbow pad: Molded to fit contour and movement Knee pad: Lightweight foam; fits snugly Helmet: Vented, light plastic * Buyer's Guide * Savvy questions for in-line skate shoppers: * How does the braking system work? * Can you rent before purchasing and apply rental fees to the cost of the skate? * Is there a comparable, less expensive model? * Are repairs performed at shop or sent to manufacturer? * Will skate be on sale soon? (Prices can range from $40 to $350.) * Rules of the Road
Abide by basic traffic tenets, including passing on the left and reducing speed under unsafe conditions. * Always wear protective gear. * Watch for water, oil or sand in your path. * Before passing others, call out, "On your left." * Slow to 5 m.p.h. whenever there is heavy pedestrian traffic. * Avoid side-by-side skating when path is crowded. * Slim Facts
In-line skating works the lower body, toning thighs, hips and buttocks. As with other aerobic exercises, benefits include improved heart rate and weight loss: Activity: Calories burned** In-line skating: 400-800 Cross-country skiing: 350-750 Jogging: 325-725 Swimming: 315-715 Cycling: 250-650 Walking: 113-350 ** During 30 minutes of moderate exercise
Sources: Rollerblade Inc.; World Book Encyclopedia, "Exercise Physiology--Energy, Nutrition and Human Performance" by W. D. McArdle; Researched by APRIL JACKSON / Los Angeles Times
In-Line Injury Report
In-line skating is still mainly a young person's activity. About two-thirds of the 12.6 million skaters in the United States last year were younger than 18. Between January, 1993, and May, 1994, more than half the injuries occurred to skaters 14 and younger. The most common injuries were fractures, most often of the wrists: * Age Profile Under 12: 39% 12-17: 26 18-24: 12 25-34: 15 35 and older: 8 * Injuries 14 and younger: 54% 15-24: 20 25-44: 22 45 and older: 4
* INJURY REPORT
From head to toe, skaters suffered more than 65,000 injuries between January, 1993, and May, 1994. The arms are most at risk, with 46% of wounds affecting either the wrist or lower arm elbow. Fractures are by far the most common kind of injury, about 43%. * Body Parts Injured While Skating Wrist: 16,212 Lower arm/elbow: 13,387 Knee/lower leg/ankle: 10,296 Head/face: 8,650 Hand/finger: 5,646 Shoulder/upper trunk: 4,357 Other: 6,492 * Injury Types Fracture: 26,796 Bruises/scrapes: 12,745 Strain/sprain: 11,031 Cuts: 8,877 Other: 5,591
Sources: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission; International In-Line Skating Assn.; Researched by STEVE EMMONS/Los Angeles Times
Before taking to the road, novices would benefit from basic instruction. Topics usually include equipment, basic moves and safety tips. * ROLLERBLADE-SPONSORED CLASSES
In-line skates and protective gear are usually provided on a first-come, first-served basis. Beginning, intermediate and advanced classes are available. For information, contact Blade School at (310) 559-7655. Classes are held in parking lots in the following locations:
Costa Mesa Tuesdays, 5:30-7:30 p.m. South Coast Plaza 3333 Bear St. *
Huntington Beach Thursdays, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Sport Chalet 16242 Beach Blvd. *
Newport Beach Saturdays, 3-5 p.m. Newport Elementary School Ocean Front and 13th Street *
Seal Beach Sundays, 1-3 p.m. McGaugh School Seal Beach Boulevard and Bolsa Avenue *
Tustin Saturdays, 9-11 a.m. Tustin Market Place 2777 El Camino Real * OTHER INSTRUCTION
Lessons for beginners and intermediate students are offered through the community services departments of several cities and independent roller rinks. Students must provide their own protective gear and skates. * Inline Roller School Cost: $10 per lesson Time: Sundays, 10:30 a.m.-noon Where: Newport Elementary School, Ocean Front and 13th Street, Newport Beach Information: (714) 642-4688 * Side by Side Roller Rink Cost: $63 for nine-week session Time: Saturday mornings, Monday evenings Where: 16091 Gothard St., Huntington Beach Information: (714) 842-9143 * Stewart's Roller World Cost: $80 for 10-week session or $12 per lesson Time: Saturdays, 5-5:30 p.m. for ages 5 to 12; 5:30-6 p.m. for 13 and older Where: 464 W. Commonwealth Blvd., Fullerton Information: (714) 871-8762 * Fountain Valley Community Services Cost: $48.50 for six-week session Time: Mondays starting Aug. 8, 4-4:30 p.m. for ages 5 to 12; 7:30-8 p.m. for 13 and older Where: Side by Side Roller Rink, 16091 Gothard St., Huntington Beach Information: In person at Fountain Valley Recreation Center, 16400 Brookhurst St. * Huntington Beach Community Services Cost: $48 for eight-week beginner's session Time: Mondays, 4-4:30 p.m. for ages 5 to 12; 7:30-8 p.m. for 13 and older Where: Side by Side Roller Rink, 16091 Gothard St., Huntington Beach Information: In person at Murdy Community Center, 7000 Norma Drive, Huntington Beach Sources: Rollerblade Inc.; individual cities; Stewart's Roller World; Side by Side Roller Rink; Researched by APRIL JACKSON and CAROLINE LEMKE / Los Angeles Times