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Helmets may seem annoying at times, but they can save a life!

Earlier this month I was invited to an event in New York City. I wish I could have attended. Olympic gold medalist Summer Sanders was coming out to launch a new safety campaign, Helmets on Heads, part of a 10 year pledge to educate one million children about helmet and bike safety. (FYI: Helmets on Heads is sponsored by Schwinn in association with the ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation.)

This event was a who, what, where, and why about wearing bicycle helmets. I couldn’t make it into the city — I was on deadline — but I was lucky enough to grab Debby Gerhardstein, the executive director of ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation, and ask her a few questions about the topic. Her answers are below:

KB: Are there any statistics about how many kids wear helmets?

Gerhardstein: Only 20 to 25 percent of all bicyclists wear helmets, and according to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, of the high school students (grades 9 through 12) who ride bikes, 87.5 percent reported they rarely or never wear a bicycle helmet.

KB: Playing devil’s advocate: I never wore a helmet growing up and I am fine. What would you say to a parent who had a similar experience and may not think helmets are important? (Although both of my kids absolutely wear helmets!)

Gerhardstein: I hope you wear one now, too! We say the same thing to people who say they did not grow up wearing a seat belt — the statistics show you were one of the fortunate ones who was not involved in a crash. If you are unprotected in a bicycle crash, your chances for a severe brain injury are pretty high. Helmets reduce your risk for brain injury by up to 87 percent.

KB: I absolutely wear a helmet! We went for a bike ride yesterday and about a half block in I realized I didn’t have one on. I actually went back to get one. There are two reasons. The first is that I think it would be really hard to tell my kids, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ The second reason is really sad. I know a local mom who was killed while riding her bike right in front of an elementary school. She didn’t have a helmet on. She left behind three kids in grade school. It was a terrible tragedy. Maybe she would have died anyway, but you always wonder what if she was wearing a helmet. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that only one in ten of the people involved in bicycle fatalities were wearing a helmet. Okay, digressing again. Let’s get back to kids and helmets. What are the most common injuries that occur when kids don’t wear helmets?

Gerhardstein: Besides the cuts, bruises and possible broken bones that can result from a bad accident, not wearing a helmet leaves you vulnerable to traumatic brain injury, or in the most severe cases, death due to a brain injury. The brain and skull cannot sustain a severe impact without protection—and even with protection we need to use caution to avoid crashes because the protection [helmets] offer has its limits too.

KB: Who is most vulnerable in a bicycle crash?

Gerhardstein: Everyone is vulnerable! Young children don’t have the developmental skills needed to ride in busy streets or without supervision; cars backing out of driveways or even cracks in the sidewalk are easily missed by young children. But surprisingly, 79 percent of bike riders injured in traffic crashes are 16 and older. Of the bicycle related injuries in 2010, 75 percent were males and most were between the ages of 25 and 34. We all need to wear a helmet!

KB: So why do you think so many kids don’t?

Gerhardstein: Surprisingly, many of the children we give helmets to say it is the first helmet they’ve owned. Parents who are educated on the risks of not wearing a helmet are more likely to require their child to always wear one from the start. With more education about the serious risks, both adults and children can make better informed decisions. We must remember everyone plays a role in protecting our children. Kids don’t want to wear a helmet if none of their friends do or if their parents don’t. The more people are educated, the more everyone gets on the same page. When everyone is on the same page, wearing a helmet stops being something we fuss about and becomes second nature.

KB: Okay, so what advice do you have for parents who were lax about helmets when their kids were young? Can parents get older kids to wear helmets?

Gerhardstein: Yes! Setting an example is important—kids emulate what we do, and easily take on our attitudes. Also, make buying a helmet fun—let them pick a helmet they like in their favorite color, and be sure it fits properly so it is comfortable so there are no excuses not to wear it. And, like refusing to drive until seat belts are buckled, putting the bike away until helmets are on properly shows you believe their protection is important.

KB: Most people might not know how to buy a good helmet. For instance, how do you find the right size?

Gerhardstein: Check the box for suggested head size and start with a head measurement as a guide. Helmets with a dial system fit a wide range of head sizes, and most helmets also offer pads to add or remove. Be sure to adjust the straps correctly to assure the helmet stays on and positioned for protection in a crash.

KB: I have a question since I am going to be buying my older child a new helmet soon: Is there a difference between a $15 helmet and a $100 helmet? I’ve seen both at the store and almost feel guilty about looking at the lower-end models.

Gerhardstein: You do not need to buy an expensive helmet for good protection. What you do need to check is that it has a CPSC sticker inside the helmet showing it has met standards for bicycle and inline skate use.

I wanted to leave my readers with one more thought: Consumer Reports recently reviewed bicycle helmets. The results were scary. Only a handful of bike helmets tested passed safety tests. Here’s an overview of the article as well as a link to the actual reviews on the CR website. As we head into the fall, please tell your kids to watch out for fallen leaves as well as drivers who may not see as well as the sun sets earlier. Also, keep in mind, as Gerhardstein says, that you’re never too old to wear a helmet! Get one and get out there on the road!

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