Tire swings, one of the most popular features of many playgrounds, have been banned from Fairfax County elementary schools after an inspection found that the equipment could be unsafe, officials said yesterday.

Doris Torrice, school system deputy superintendent, said she ordered county elementary schools last month to remove the tire swings because the swivels connecting the swings' chains to support beams were found to have "unexpected and erratic wear after less than one year of use."

Fairfax has used tire swings in elementary school playgrounds for about eight years, installing not the old-fashioned rope-and-tire type but an updated version in which the tire hangs parallel to the ground, and is held by three chains. The chains are attached to a swivel that permits the swing to rotate as well as move back and forth. The swings also hold several children, unlike the traditional type.

The order comes amid heightened national concern about expensive lawsuits resulting from sports accidents that in some cases have left schools or playgrounds without liarility insurance. Fairfax schools are self-insured and no serious accidents have been reported, but officials said they are worried that an injury could result in a costly judgment.

Most of the 19 tire swings at county schools already have been removed.

Two years ago, the county school system banned construction of wooden "creative playgrounds," saying they deteriorate rapidly or are poorly constructed. The moratorium has been lifted, but new playgrounds must meet tougher construction standards. Many tire swings were installed as part of such playgrounds.

Tire swings are in place at 10 to 30 of the county's 100 public parks, according to Park Authority spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald. She said maintenance crews are aware that the swivel "is a weak part," and check the swings at least once every two weeks. The Park Authority is studying whether to ban the swings, but so far it believes they are safe, she said.

Most school systems in the Washington area, including those in Anne Arundel, Arlington, Howard and Montgomery counties and the City of Alexandria, also use tire swings, but none plans to remove them immediately, officials said.

Prince George's County has the swings only at special education centers, which officials say offer one-on-one supervision. Officials in D.C., Loudoun County and Prince William County say they do not have the swings on their playgrounds.

Park officials in several jurisdictions that have tire swings, including Howard and Prince William counties and Alexandria, say they have no plans to remove them.

The Fairfax order follows two years of unsuccessful attempts by school officials to find a safe tire swing, a search prompted by a 1985 accident in which three children were hurled 20 feet across the Fox Mill Elementary School playground in Herndon because the swivel snapped on the swing on which they were riding, said Gordon Lawrence, the school system's safety director.

The children barely missed hitting a wood balance beam, and landed in a gravel play area.

One child had a broken arm, one incurred a nose injury and the third received rib injuries, he said.

"That's a pretty serious accident especially when you consider what would have happened had they not cleared that balance beam {but} smashed into it," Lawrence said.

School officials a year ago installed a new type of swing swivel that they thought was safe, but an inspection 10 months later revealed that two of the swivels had nearly worn out, Lawrence said.

The other safety concern is that the tire swings require close supervision that is not available when school is not in session, officials said.

Two Fairfax County PTA presidents at schools with tire swings said they were disappointed the swings would be removed, but said school officials were doing the right thing.

"We have plenty of other play equipment," said Ann Ruehelmann, PTA president at Hunters Woods Elementary School in Reston. "If it's dangerous, it's best that it be removed."

But one former PTA president at a school with a tire swing said the county is overreacting. "If a child is injured on a slide does that mean all the slides come down?" said the official, who left office this summer.

"If they take down the tire swings, what's next?"

Researcher Kristin Eddy contributed to this report.