01/20/2012 12:14 EST | Updated 03/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Head protection for tobogganing: Ottawa lab puts children's helmets to the test

TORONTO - Parents who take their youngsters tobogganing might want to top them off with a hockey helmet based on new test results of protective headgear for winter activities.

A team from the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute and University of Ottawa compared the protective characteristics of three types of helmets used by children age seven and under. The study was published Friday in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics.

In a laboratory setting, head forms fitted to helmets for ice hockey, alpine skiing and cycling were subjected to front and side impacts at two-, four-, six- and eight-metres per second, using a special monorail drop rig.

Impact and surface velocities were chosen to simulate an impact similar to what might be expected for a child on the toboggan hill. Safety performance was defined by the ability of a helmet to reduce acceleration of the head during the impact, said Dr. Blaine Hoshizaki, director of the Neurotrauma Impact Laboratory.

The team found that the ice hockey helmet was the most protective at the lower-velocity impacts, while the bike helmet was the most protective at the high-velocity impact.

The researchers found that alpine helmets didn't score well on front hits but did well on side impacts, which often occur on a ski hill.

But most of the collisions in tobogganing are front hits, said Dr. Michael Vassilyadi, a pediatric neurosurgeon and one of the study's co-authors.

"I think the research showed that, yes, the cycling helmet is good at very high velocities, the hockey helmet is good at most velocities," he said in an interview from Ottawa. "However, practically speaking, the hockey helmet would be the winner, if you want to say, because it serves more than one purpose."

The hockey helmet can be worn overtop a tuque and keeps the child warm while tobogganing, whereas a cycling helmet with a tuque below wobbles and isn't well-fitted, he said.

Vassilyadi said another useful feature of the hockey helmet is its ability to withstand multiple impacts, while a cycling helmet is designed to take one impact and then needs to be thrown away.

In addition, a hockey helmet offers the option of a cage or facial shield to protect the face from injury.

"A lot of the children we see that come in to CHEO with facial hits could have a lacerated lip, broken teeth, broken nose, and a regular bicycle helmet would not protect you from that," Vassilyadi noted.

Less than five per cent of children wear helmets when tobogganing, but Vassilyadi would like to see that change.

"The question is, can somebody develop a helmet, a multipurpose winter helmet for toddlers ... that can be used, and then for more than one activity?" he asked.

In addition, he'd like to see young children — especially seven and under — properly supervised on the toboggan hill so they don't achieve high speeds above eight metres per second.

Vassilyadi would also like municipal governments to explore the possibility of closing off access to hills if they're too icy to ensure children won't be travelling at high velocity.

Earlier this week, the Canadian Paediatric Society released a statement calling for helmet use to be made mandatory for anyone taking to the ski hills.

And a report released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information on serious injuries related to winter sports and recreational activities found that more than 5,600 Canadians were hospitalized for at least one night from 2010-11.

Skiing and snowboarding accounted for more than 2,300 admissions, while hockey-related injuries accounted for 1,114 cases.

The data showed 889 ice skating injuries, 1,126 injuries related to snowmobiling and 171 due to tobogganing.