If ever there was a season that could be called "Helmet Season", spring is it. Now that the weather is beginning to turn more favorable for outdoor activities, our children will be hitting the streets, sidewalks and parking lots with their bicycles, skateboards, roller blades and of course the newest rage, scooters. If you have not yet noticed a steady increase in child traffic around your neighborhood, you soon will. And it will likely be the young cyclists that lead the way.
Bicycling is part of the fabric of our society and is enjoyed by more than 100 million Americans every year. It is extremely fun and can provide exercise for the whole family. As your child gets older, his bike might even become an integral part of his independence. It will probably be the primary mode of his transportation to and from the homes of nearby friends. But the hazards of bicycling must also be appreciated. Fortunately, most bicycle injuries do not jeopardize a child's health. Falls and minor collisions usually lead only to scrapes and bruises. Deeper cuts and broken bones occur less frequently. Serious injuries to the head and neck, however, are not uncommon. Approximately 1,300 bicycling deaths occur in the U.S. each year and over 500,000 people are seen in emergency rooms every year for bicycling injuries. Children, as usual, are at greater risk of injury than adults. In fact, 50 percent of all bicycle-related fatalities involve children. Most likely to be injured are children between the ages of five and fifteen years.
Bicycles and Automobiles- A Deadly Mix
When it comes to serious bicycle injuries, one cause stands out- crashes with automobiles. In fact, 70 percent of bicycle-related fatalities result from collisions with automobiles. In 1997 250 children were killed when the bicycles they were riding collided with motor vehicles- 97 percent were not wearing helmets.
By limiting your youngster's biking to off-road locations, implementing early riding curfews, and having your child wear a helmet, you will dramatically decrease his risk of suffering a serious injury. Keep in mind two important facts that relate to bicycle accidents.
- Most bicycle accidents involving an automobile occur when a child is exiting a driveway, crossing a street or crossing an intersection.
- Most accidents occur in the evening hours.
In 70 to 80 percent of bicycle-related fatalities, head injury is the cause of death. In 1996, 757 bicyclists were killed when struck by motor vehicles- 96 percent of those killed were not wearing helmets. Head injury also leads to other serious medical problems such as seizures, headaches, mental retardation and chronic disability. Most of these deaths and disabilities can easily be prevented. Always be sure your child wears a standard bicycle helmet. There is no doubt about it- helmets have been proven to prevent bicycle-related head injuries. When properly worn, they can reduce the likelihood of death by at least 85 percent.
Can a child wear just any helmet when bicycling? The answer to this question is a resounding NO. Helmets designed for other sports, such as football or wrestling do not provide the same type of protection for bicyclists and will not allow adequate visibility. All bicycle helmets are required to be certified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). A helmet not approved by the CPSC might be composed of material that does not provide adequate cushioning upon impact or it might have design flaws. Look for a label on the inside of the helmet stating that it meets CPSC requirements.
Bicycle helmets come in two basic styles, soft and hard-shelled. The difference between the two is an additional tough plastic outer layer on hard-shelled helmets. This outer shell provides protection against penetrating injuries from sharp objects that might be encountered in an accident. Both types have an outer layer of polystyrene that encloses the hard foam material made to absorb the shock of an impact. Both hard- and soft-shelled helmets are safe and approved for use while bicycling.
Take your child with you when shopping for a helmet and let him choose the style. The look and feel of a bicycle helmet should be as important to you as it is to your child. If your child likes the helmet, he will be more inclined to regularly wear it. Just be sure the helmet color is bright so that visibility is enhanced when he is bicycling.
A helmet must also fit properly to be effective.
- Be sure the bicycle helmet on your child's head is snug but not too tight and does not block any part of the visual field.
- Be sure the helmet cannot easily be moved or pulled off when your child wears it.
- Position the helmet so it is straight atop your child's head, not at an angle, and fasten the chin strap and buckle to keep it in place.
A Damaged Helmet
A helmet is usually only good for one crash. After that, the foam may no longer provide adequate protection. If you have concern about a helmet's usefulness, send it to the manufacturer for inspection. Keep in mind, though, it is probably cheaper and easier to simply throw away the helmet in question and purchase another.
Don't forget that bicycling is only one of the warm weather activities during which children should be wearing protective head gear. Skateboarding, rollerblading and riding a scooter should never be done without a proper helmet. Your local sporting goods store should have just the right one for your child.
Written by Mark A. Brandenburg, MD, author of CHILD SAFE: A Practical Guide for Preventing Childhood Injuries. CHILD SAFE is also a terrific gift for grandparents, nannies, baby sitters and all other child care providers. Dr. Brandenburg is an Emergency Physician at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Board Certified by the American Board of Emergency Medicine, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM).