As Christmas approaches, safety advocates are warning that one of the country's hottest toys - the scooter - is landing thousands of children in emergency rooms nationwide with fractures, lacerations and other injuries.
The sleek, two-wheeled vehicle is often being used in traffic, without protection such as helmets and by children too young to balance and handle the scooters, experts say.
In the first six months of this year, the nation's emergency rooms treated more than 68,000 injuries resulting from mishaps on nonpowered scooters, about 30,000 more than for all of last year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Most of those hurt were boys under age 15. This year, 14 people have been killed on scooters, many when they were hit by cars.
The risks of scooters were highlighted in a national report released yesterday about hazardous toys. The 16th annual report, by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, warns shoppers about hidden dangers like small toys that can choke children, noisy games that can damage hearing and soft, teething toys that can poison toddlers.
"Be cautious. Just because a toy is on the shelf doesn't mean it is safe," said Gigi Kellett, a policy associate with Maryland Public Interest Research Group, a chapter of the national organization. She noted that at least 191,000 people nationwide were treated in emergency rooms last year for toy-related injuries.
But with sales soaring, scooters account for most of the increase in toy-related injuries, according to the report.
In Maryland, children and teens riding scooters have suffered foot and hand fractures, sprains and contusions, according to the CPSC.
At Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, Dr. Angelo Falcone, chairman of the emergency department, said kids with scooter injuries showed up daily in the summer, but now come in mostly on weekends. Falcone said that along with lesser injuries, some children have had concussions, as well as potentially fatal intracranial hemorrhages.
Some of the children are age 7 and younger - too young to be able to balance on a scooter, doctors say. Falcone said this advice isn't well-received by parents, who remember riding scooters as kids.
But there are big differences today, noted Cynthia Wright-Johnson, director of EMS for children at Maryland's EMS system. City streets and highways are much more crowded with cars.
Wright-Johnson is launching a campaign to warn Marylanders about scooter risks. Other groups, like the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, are also spreading the word to use scooters on flat surfaces, away from moving cars.
"When you're buying a scooter, think: you're buying your kid a moving vehicle. That means a helmet, elbow and knee protection, and riding in a safe place," said Dr. Oscar Taube, a pediatrician at Sinai Hospital.
A spokeswoman for one of the companies that sells scooters, Razor USA, said the company urges scooter riders to use the same safety precautions as they would with bicycles, skateboards or in-line skates. The company doesn't recommend scooters for children younger than 4 and says those between 4 and 8 should be supervised by a parent.
The leading cause of toy-related deaths is still choking, which accounted for 59 percent of the 207 deaths over the past decade, according to yesterday's report. Balloons cause the most choking deaths. Children either swallow them before they're blown up, inhale them while trying to blow them up or ingest broken pieces.
The report also emphasized that some toy manufacturers and retailers don't put warning labels on unwrapped small toys that can choke children. At a news conference yesterday, advocates showed a mini-meal kit, which included fake plastic hot dogs and scoops of chocolate and strawberry ice cream - small enough to choke a toddler, yet not labeled with a warning, as required by law.
Experts suggested parents use the cardboard roll from toilet paper as a way to test toys - if a toy can fit through, a toddler might choke on it.
But online shoppers will have a difficult time checking out toys. According to the study, an analysis of 44 online toy retailers found that only three included safety labeling.
Said J. Joseph Curran Jr., Maryland's attorney general: "Please don't sacrifice safety for convenience."