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KEEP YOUR IN-LINE SKATER IN LINE WITH SAFETY GEAR AND LESSONS

Roller skating and in-line skating, sometimes called Rollerblading, are among the country's hottest recreational sports. Yet for the nearly eight million skaters under age 12, the activity can also be one of the most dangerous.

For example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that in just one year, from 1993 to 1994, the number of in-line skating injuries more than doubled to 76,000, as new skaters took up the sport but didn't take the necessary precautions. Speed is the big attraction - and the main hazard. An experienced in-line skater can cruise at about 10 to 17 mph, which means that although he can zoom around faster than on traditional roller skates, he also has less time to react and stop.Weighing the risks, you might start to worry if your 6-, 7-, or 8-year-old has the urge to try skating, in particular in-lining. But San Diego pediatrician Sylvia Micik says a child may be ready to roll if he has good coordination and balance and is streetwise and safety-minded. Other sporting advice for parents:

- Safety measures. Before you spend any cash on skates, buy your child a helmet, wrist guards and elbow and knee pads, and lay down the law: No safety gear, no skating. Insist that your youngster steer clear of risky conditions as well, advises Heather Paul, executive director of the National Safe Kids Campaign. Don't allow him to skate at night, in the street or on rough or wet pavement, gravel or dirt. And he shouldn't wear anything that obstructs vision or restricts hearing (like stereo head-phones).

Safety gear is worth every penny. Prices for a helmet start at about $25; be sure it has a label inside or on the box that verifies compliance with Snell or ANSI safety standards. Knee and elbow pads (with plastic outer caps to prevent abrasions) and wrist guards (with inner metal splints) run about $18 to $25 a pair.

- Skates. "First and foremost, get a good fit," recommends Bob Hunnewell, marketing director at Canstar, a Swanton, Vt., skate manufacturer; skates that are too large or too small will cause blisters. Youth or junior models for roller hockey and in-line skating don't come in sizes for kids much younger than 6. If you're tempted to buy in-line skates your child can grow into, consider Rollerblade's Microblade model, which have removable liners in two sizes for the inside of the skates.

In-line skates range in price from $39 to $100. Make sure that they're made of polyurethane so they're stiff enough to provide ankle support.

- Instruction. The National Safe Kids Campaign recommends that all young in-liners take lessons from a knowledgeable adult or professional. Call the International In-Line Skating Association at (800) 567-5283 to find instructors in your area or to hear a primer on safe skating. USA Hockey In-Line, an offshoot of USA Hockey, can help you find local instructors, clinics and roller-hockey leagues (usually for kids ages 8 and up); call (719) 599-5500. The typical cost for a group class ranges from about $7 to $15 per hour, including a small insurance fee.

- Michele Himmelberg,

Parenting Magazine