April 19, 2002 -- Kids may consider wearing a bicycle helmet "uncool," but a new study shows that safety laws requiring it really do work. They significantly increase helmet use by the most vulnerable population -- children under 16. But another study shows safety gear doesn't prevent accidents and can't replace common sense, and parents shouldn't rely on helmets and padding alone to keep their children safe.
In 1998 alone, some 45,000 children were treated in U.S. hospitals for bicycling-related head injuries. And of the 224 bicycling-related deaths of children under 16, the majority were from head injuries.
"Although head injuries are among the most serious sustained by bicyclists, they are also among the most preventable. Research has shown that helmet use substantially reduces both the likelihood and severity of head injury," writes Gregory B. Rodgers, PhD, with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in Washington.
Rodgers analyzed what makes kids more or less likely to wear a helmet through random, countrywide telephone interviews with more than 1,000 households with young bike riders.
He found that consistent helmet use was most closely linked to the presence of state helmet laws more than to any other factor.
"State helmet laws significantly increase helmet use by children and play an important part in any comprehensive effort designed to achieve this goal," Rodgers writes.
In a related study, Barbara A. Morrongiello, PhD, and colleagues conducted telephone interviews with 54 mothers of children aged 7-9. They asked the mothers about seven play activities, including bicycling, swimming, and jumping on a trampoline. The parents reported the level of risk they'd permit their child to take if the child were or weren't using safety gear. For example, how fast would they let their child bike ride while wearing or not wearing a helmet.
Results of the survey appear in the March issue of Injury Prevention.
"Parents reported they would allow significantly greater risk taking by their children under safety gear than non-safety gear conditions," write the researchers, who are from the psychology department at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
These results "highlight the need to communicate to parents that safety gear moderates injury risk but does not necessarily guarantee the prevention of injury, particularly if children are allowed greater risk taking when wearing safety gear," they write.