Trampoline parks launch debate over safety
16 ambulances have been dispatched to Carol Stream facility since it opened in November
Ava Orr, left, and Maya Unlauf, both 8 and from Glen Ellyn, play at Xtreme Trampolines in Carol Stream. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)
"It's a really fun place," she said of the Carol Stream warehouse, where the public can jump around on trampolines stitched together like a giant checkerboard. But the Chicago resident also remembers how she once "got crazy and nearly killed myself" by landing on her head. "I need to remember how old I am next time."
All the rage on the West Coast, trampoline parks are beginning to pop up in the Chicago area, with new parks proposed in Buffalo Grove, Naperville and Niles. Their owners say they offer a wholesome activity for all ages, adding that customers are briefed on safety and that padding minimizes the chance of injury.
But critics aren't convinced. Since the Carol Stream park opened in November, emergency call records show that 16 ambulances have been dispatched for trauma ranging from broken ankles and dislocated shoulders to a head injury.
In one instance, a 13-year-old girl fell on her neck and reported tingling in her arms and difficulty breathing.
The potential for devastating injuries concerns Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. He sees the parks as a progression from the use of backyard trampolines, which nearly tripled the number of trampoline injuries in the 1990s, with 11 deaths, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, he noted, recommends against the use of trampolines other than in a supervised setting, such as in a gymnastics facility. It also warns against using trampolines as toys in the backyard and allowing children younger than 6 to participate.
A trampoline park "sounds like a very large backyard," he said. "That would not be where I would want my child to learn how to use the trampoline."
The controversy stirs the debate over where to draw the line between reasonable safety guidelines and freedom of choice.
Operators say no activity is risk-free. All customers, and guardians for those under 18, sign a waiver releasing Xtreme from liability if they are injured or killed.
Trampoline parks are safer than backyard trampolines, said Xtreme owner Eric Beck, because each trampoline is bordered by other trampolines or by a floor on the same level. He estimates his facility's injury rate at 2 in 1,000 customers.
"It's over 99 percent safe, not 100 percent safe," he said. "If you're not comfortable with the risk, don't do it."
After paying $11 for the first hour, Xtreme participants, whose average age is 16, are required to watch a three-minute video going over the rules. There are no shoes, running or roughhousing. There's also a limit of one person per trampoline, with no double-bouncing, in which one person lands to bounce another higher in the air. Participants are encouraged to stay within their abilities.
Still, injuries happen. Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield saw a noticeable increase in traumatic injuries after Xtreme opened, said Kristine Cieslak, medical director of the pediatric emergency room. She said the ER staff has treated numerous youths with broken legs and arms, and one with a fractured neck, fortunately without paralysis.
Parents and teens told her they didn't realize the risk.
Nationwide, almost 100,000 people go to emergency rooms each year for injuries due to trampoline accidents, including those in gymnasiums and at home, according to the product safety commission. Some other activities, like bicycling, basketball and football, have far more injuries, Beck points out. But the commission, which tracks those numbers, does not calculate the rate of injury per participant.
The pediatrics academy found relatively high rates of injury for some sports, including football and traditional gymnastics, but it did not address trampoline parks.
Unlike amusement parks, trampoline parks are not regulated in Illinois by any state or federal agency. That's because the parks do not involve a moving apparatus, according to the Illinois Department of Labor.
Instead, review of proposed trampoline parks falls to municipalities, but they don't typically get involved in operational safety issues.