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Monday, January 31, 2005

The Slippery Slope of Alexandria

It was a cold crisp January day in good ol’ Alexandria. The reverberation in the background was of children of all ages laughing and screaming in delight. From the thunderous laughing alone a casual observer could tell at once there were over 100 kids playing from above. The tempestuous weather on Saturday afternoon had packed the town under at least 3-4 inches of snow and ice, a rare, but semi-annual event in this area of the county.

Even as the first snowflake fell, kids from ages 2 to 60 were preparing their snowsuits, winter gloves, and trendy sleds of all shapes and sizes. Many of the sleds were even homemade, including cookie sheets and remnants of old home furnishings. As if everyone in the city were invited at the same exact time, 100’s of Alexandria citizens headed to the Masonic Temple to go sledding and enjoy their Sunday afternoon together. For many, this was the first time ever attending this annual event and it was electrifying and exhilarating.

All day long both the children and adults raced down the slippery and fast running hills at the end of Old Town. They dodged trees, small bushes and even other people on sleds and snowboards, and had a grand old time. Though on a smaller scale, many of these kids were finally able to experience the exhilaration of the Winter Olympics first hand. The primary difference between these small Virginia slopes and the runs at the Olympics were really two fold. First, the hills that were able to manage so many children for so many years were not as lengthy and tedious as the Olympic toboggan runs, as in Lake Placid. Secondly, and more importantly, these hills in Alexandria were, and are to a great extent, more dangerous.

That’s right, the Olympic sled runs, that promise speeds of almost 200mph and carry professionals that have trained their whole lives for these events, are much safer than the petite hill at the end of Old Town where George Washington spent much of his time, even in the winter. This immediate danger is not because of the few trees or bushes or even the many people traveling up and down the hill every few minutes. The genuine danger comes from how the short, but swift run concludes; in the middle of a busy street. More times than you would believe, the end of the quick and exciting run down this hill for children ends up in the middle of King Street, as traffic is driving down the slippery road.

The danger is indisputable. Within a 3 hour period at the slopes on this frosty day, there were over six incidents of children, including some as small as five years old, ending up in the street with a few closer than desirable calls with a motor vehicle. By the grace of God, and some very attentive drivers, no tragic accidents occurred, but based on these overruns by the kids; it is a matter of time. Children and adults flowing down this hill as a never ending stream, though not intentionally, can and do end up in the middle of King Street. Though parents have learned to stand at the end of the slope to attempt catch their children who have mistimed the breaking power of their toboggan. Though people are careful and attentive to this situation, there are too many times where children are ending up in the middle of the street. The combination of a mixture of slippery ice on the roads and a child that cannot stop in time, as they race down the hill, spells tragedy.

We need immediate action to avoid a heartbreaking incident in the future. Though children have been sledding down this hill for many years, we are sitting on a ticking time bomb. This hill is very important to the community and the sledding experience is one that children will remember for the rest of their lives. This needs to be protected today.

With a small investment by the community, Alexandria could install temporary snow fences at the end of the short run to ‘catch’ any wayward sleds and their passengers. The bright orange thick plastic fence would be immediately installed when there was any snowfall (or in anticipation of the snowfall), and only removed once the snow had melted. The barrier would only be required in the southwest corner of the property and could be put up and dismantled within a few hours by city workers or concerned citizens. The sturdy snow fence would be strong enough to catch any child out of control, but also would not harm anyone if they were to run into the fence by accident. The fence would still allow access from the street though smaller individual sized entryways, away from the standard sledding areas. Additionally, this bright fence would be visible to drivers and alert them that there are people in the area and that they should be more attentive as they drive down King Street during this slippery time of year.

The snow fence would be installed and maintained by the Park District as a part of their standard snow procedure. Additionally, signs would be put up on the property at the same time to inform the adults and children of safety rules and precautions. The signs could be placed at the top and bottom of the hills. A Park District employee would be needed to check the fence every few hours to ensure there were no problems with it due to snowfall or children playing.

Through a negligible investment in a snow barrier, supporting material, signage, and few Park District resources, the city counsel could immediately reduce the risk of major injury or tragedy. The investment to fund this initiative could come from local businesses, citizens, and/or the recreation city budget. I am willing to donate as much as possible towards this effort, in my time or money.

These are the children of our town. These are the most loved and significant part of our future; we need to protect each of them as we would our own family no matter the cost or additional effort placed upon each of us.

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