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Skateboard towing accidents on the rise

Several recent accidents have brought skateboard towing into the news. Gabe Morford

In March, an 18-year-old man died outside Austin, Texas, while towing behind a truck on his skateboard. According to Travis County Sheriff's spokesman Roger Wade, "The individual was involved with what they call 'longboarding'" and fell while the truck was towing him uphill in a sparsely populated suburb about 20 miles outside the city.

The accident was the latest in a string of fatal or near-fatal mishaps involving skateboard towing, which is also known as skitching, hitching or, as one medical professional referred to it, bumper surfing. Other accidents have occurred around the world, from Australia to New Zealand to the U.K. to Canada, and across the U.S., with recent accidents in Oregon, California, Maryland, Texas, Virginia and Illinois. But while mainstream observers can be inclined to blame the sport as a whole, core skaters -- many of whom have towed behind cars as a form of urban transportation for decades -- maintain the accidents are isolated and unrelated to the practice as they know it.

"If you Google 'kid jumping off roof,' you're going to see that everywhere too," said AJ Muzzo, 36, a Philadelphia-based skater and ex-pro who has towed for nearly 20 years. "I just see it as people taking risks that they shouldn't take. If you don't have the skills, I wouldn't advise it."

Ricky Oyola, whose company, Traffic Skateboards, was branded around skating through the city streets, believes many accident victims treat towing as a stunt instead of as part of their everyday lives. "People do it on the highway -- I've seen it," Oyola said. "That's when it becomes a game."

He added: "I don't view it as a trend at all. When people get hurt, it's just a mishap. I read about kids dying on the football field too. For sure, there are definitely idiots out there who shouldn't be [towing]."

Still, as more accidents occur, towing's image among the general public encompasses everyone who does it, not just the people Oyola referred to. After a man was badly injured while towing outside Melbourne, Australia, last October, the local newspaper ran a story on the accident. The man, 23, had been towing on the back door of a four-wheel-drive car when he slipped underneath it and was dragged.

Reader comments included: "The less intellectual members of our society," "What next, shotgun impact tester?" and "If you're stupid, you must suffer."

A more informed reader chimed in: "It's called skitching and it's dangerous. It shouldn't be done just because Marty McFly did it in Back to the Future." (Nor because they saw it in Gleaming the Cube, in which Christian Slater clings to a Corvette at more than 60 mph during a chase.)

Depictions on the big screen had nothing to do with Oyola and his friends learning to tow in the early '90s, however. Due to an imperfect rail system in Philadelphia, Oyola said they would push their skateboards for up to 40 blocks to get where they were going. They were fast enough that they'd often travel at the same speed as the traffic zipping from stoplight to stoplight.

"We were always in the middle of the street next to cars," Oyola said, "and one day we were just tired, and that thing's right next to you. These situations present themselves. If it's right there, you grab it. I'd hitch a ride every day if it presented itself. I'm not scared of the cars."

Oyola said he and his friends got to be smooth enough that they could hop over trolley tracks while towing next to a car, or flow from one car to another without losing momentum -- often after executing a right turn at an intersection.

"I'm not going out and telling kids to do it," Oyola said. "I don't even talk about it, to tell you the truth. It's just something we do skating through the city."

Even for pros, however, towing carries significant peril, said Mark Zacharewicz, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist with the Brain and Behavior Clinic in Colorado. "Traumatic brain injury is a huge risk for these people," Zacharewicz said. "And not just limb fractures, but spinal fractures. You're traveling unprotected. Even with helmets, you're giving your head a shell, but you could still easily injure your brain. And obviously the faster you go, all those risks will become exponentially greater."

A couple of years ago, Mazzu was towing next to a car late at night after getting off work. The driver accelerated to about 20 mph, then slammed on his brakes. Mazzu instantly got speed wobbles and supermanned off his board into a sewer drain on the curb.

"I nearly ripped my finger off; blood was streaming out," he said. "That was a rough one. It scared me for a while. Luckily I didn't hit my face, because I was eye-level with the curb. But I guess I didn't learn my lesson, because I'm still towing. I caught a little ride yesterday."

Mazzu recalled a different incident that affected him more profoundly: a fellow skater fell while towing and was paralyzed when a subsequent car ran over his body. "He's in a wheelchair, and it's a really sad story because he was a ripper," Mazzu said. "That scares me. I think about it a lot. But again, I'm so used to towing -- I can probably skate better than I can walk."

Which is more than most towing participants can claim. "A lot of accidents are just people not thinking," Mazzu said. "They're like, 'If I can hold onto a car and stand up on a skateboard, then I can catch a ride.'"