June 10, 1991


By Emily Mitchell. Reported by Idelle Davidson/Los Angeles and Unda Williams/New York

Whiz! Zoom! Crash! Ouch!

A speedy sport takes a brisk and painful toll

Here they come, whizzing along city streets and suburban roadways by the thousands. Then watch out, there they go, down on the pavement, writhing in pain. This year about 1 million people-twice as many as last year-are dashing around on "in-line" blades, the ice skates on wheels, and casualties are mounting. Health officials, roller buffs and the $150 million industry are growing concerned at the rising number of fractures, sprains and contusions as throngs of wobbly tyros fasten on the high-speed, tricky devices.

On one recent weekend, New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital treated 17 bladers for injuries. On the West Coast, about a dozen in-line skaters show up at the Santa Monica Hospital emergency room every weekend, and in San Francisco, David Miles, who coordinates Golden Gate Park's roller-skating patrol, says that up to 15 skaters are hurt each day. Wherever the accidents occur, the injury list is the same: fractures of the wrists and elbows and badly banged-up knees and ankles. Overall, estimates Manhattan orthopedic surgeon Dr. Pierce Ferriter, "we're seeing 10 times the number we saw last year."

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Down and out in Manhattan's Central Park

The thrill and the problem with in-line skates is that they go much faster - up to 30 m.p.h.- than roller skates and are difficult to stop. Most accidents involve first timers who have had little or no instruction. And though there is good protective gear available, a majority of bladers prefer to breeze along unpadded. The most feared injuries are to the head, yet few bladers will deign to don helmets. "They're hot inside and mess up your hair," says Neil Feineman, author of a how-to book for skaters entitled Wheel Excitement. Although he always wears a helmet in street traffic, Feineman adds, "They're hard on the Walkmans."

The Minnesota company that started the craze, Rollerblade, Inc., is concerned about the rising tally. This week it kicks off a nationwide "SkateSmart Month" to urge skaters to use profective equipment, learn proper use of the skates and obey road rules. Manhattan has set speed limits for bladers in Central Park, and Huntington Beach, Calif., has banned them from business districts. A smart move by retailers might be to tack a few dollars onto the tab for the pricey wheels (up to $350) and include an hour or two of well-padded lessons.