Something for the Fleet of Foot
Shoes With Built-In Wheels Are All the Rage -- and the Source of Some Angst

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007

They're hard to spot, those Heely kids.

Although millions of Heelys have been sold around the world, turning the sneakers with wheels into a must-have accessory for the grade-school set, you seldom notice a child wearing them until . . . THERE'S ONE! . . . Over there, b y the giant fridge !

Like magic, 8-year-old Anthony Viera has shifted from walking to rolling on the wheels inside his shoes. It's as though he's floating as he zigzags past kitchen appliances, fishtails down another aisle where his grandfather is pricing air conditioners and then -- aye yi yi -- swerves near a display of big-screen, big-ticket TVs.

No one pays him any mind on a recent night at the Fair Oaks Mall, which is fine by him.

"One time, when I went to Home Depot, they told me to stop rolling," said Anthony, a third-grader at Cub Run Elementary School in Centreville. "They think you're going to knock things down."

A fad for some and an annoyance for others, Heelys have hit their stride just in time for summer. Last year, the company, Heelys Inc., had more than $188 million in sales, compared with $21.3 million two years earlier. But, alas, a backlash has set in as some worry whether the sneakers-on-wheels are safe. Some schools, malls and other public places have banned them.

For a company with about 40 employees, Texas-based Heelys has created a worldwide craze since the shoes hit the market in 2000. Many sporting goods and shoe stores carry them. A pair of multicolor Gelato-style Heelys at Finish Line in the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax will set you back $99.99.

"When they first came out, they hit the market just fierce," said Finish Line assistant manager David Holy, 20, of Manassas. "I've had people in their 30s come in and ask to buy them."

But malls aren't just places to purchase the shoes. They're considered awesome places to wear them.

Look around the average shopping center and you're liable to see a child between 6 and 14 gliding along on wheeled sneakers, perhaps in tow as her mother holds her hand and dashes around on errands.

At Potomac Mills mall in Prince William County, security guards hand out warnings to children who are heeling recklessly. Those who continue heeling wildly are asked to leave. The mall adopted the policy in February after some customers complained about children rolling into them, spokeswoman Caroline Barry said.

World Against Toys Causing Harm, a Boston-based nonprofit group, puts Heelys on its 2006 "10 Worst Toys" list, and two medical studies, including one this month in the journal Pediatrics, have warned of their possible hazards. A 12-year-old Massachusetts boy died in March 2006. Two boys elsewhere were critically injured while wearing wheeled sneakers, though it is not clear whether the shoes were to blame.

The Pediatrics study also put its finger on the tricky thing about wheeled sneakers: Their appeal rests on their versatility, which allows children to be walking one moment and zooming around on wheels the next. How can a kid be sly about his new James Bond-like sneakers if he's armored head to foot like a hockey goalie? And so they forgo helmets and pads, despite warnings by the company and safety advocates.

"Nobody wears any of that stuff with Heelys," fretted Lenore Gelman, the mother of two sons -- Teddy, 11, and Sam, 8 -- who successfully lobbied for Heelys. Gelman, a special education teacher from Gaithersburg, said she had never heard of the shoes until her older son began begging for a pair.

"I saw them on other kids and I said, 'I gotta have those,' " Teddy said. "It just looked like a shoe with wheels. At first, I thought it was strange, but after more people started to get them, I knew what they were."

For those without a 10-year-old in the neighborhood, a word of explanation: Heelys come with one or two wheels in the heel so wearers can go from walking to rolling just by shifting their weight. The wheels are not retractable; they do not spin when a person's weight rests on the front of the shoe. The wheels can be easily removed, however, transforming a Heely into a pedestrian set of sneakers.

To keep from falling when heeling, the wearer is advised to stagger the feet, placing one ahead of the other for stability.

Some backlash was inevitable.

The journal Pediatrics highlighted the shoe risks. A study conducted by the Temple Street Children's University Hospital in Dublin reported that 67 children ages 6 to 15 had been injured on wheeled sneakers during a 10-week period last summer. More than 80 percent of the injured children were girls, and the most common injuries involved broken wrists, arms and elbows. There were no head injuries, and none of the injuries was life-threatening.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 1,600 emergency room visits a year are caused by wheeled sneakers. But the commission also reports that scooters send about 44,000 children annually to emergency rooms.

"The recommendation to parents should be, if you're going to buy wheeled sneakers, you should buy a helmet after that," commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said.

Some Fairfax County schools have banned them, but there is no districtwide prohibition, spokesman Paul Regnier said. Montgomery County has reported a few problems, but no districtwide policy is in place, spokeswoman Kate Harrison said. The D.C. schools' public relations office did not return calls seeking comment.

The only reported fatality of a Heelys wearer occurred when Ryan Carmichael of East Bridgewater, Mass., was hit by a car while crossing the two-lane road in front of his house to collect the mail. Police Chief John E. Cowan said last week that there was no evidence the boy was heeling at the time of the accident and that the circumstances suggest that he had been walking. A 12-year-old English boy and a 10-year-old boy from Jersey City, N.J., suffered critical head injuries while wearing wheeled sneakers after they fell and were hit by cars.

But the shoes' fans, which include parents, say that heeling is no worse than many other outdoor activities.

"It's in the same league as table tennis, billiards and bowling," Edward J. Heiden, a Washington-based consultant who, at Heelys' request, analyzed more than 2 million incident reports compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Between January 2001 and September 2006, Heiden found, sneakers-on-wheels had a better safety record than bicycles or skateboards or playing basketball, soccer or tennis.

Scott Freedman, medical director of the pediatric emergency department at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, said the hospital has treated about 10 children injured while using wheeled sneakers in the past 12 months. "It's not a number that's astoundingly alarming," he said.

Still, Freedman urged users to wear helmets and other protective gear. And he advised parents to use common sense.

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