June 1, 2009

Buckle Up for Safety

Have you ever thought about bike helmets? No, seriously. What do they do? Do they work? Are they effective? Yes, I’m going somewhere with this.

First, the facts. Bike helmets reduce serious head injuries in people who have bike accidents. Obviously, they don’t eliminate the possibility of a serious head injury, they just reduce the likelihood of having one. Yet people wearing helmets can die in bike accidents. If you think about it, imagining reasons this could happen isn’t very difficult. The energy of a car or truck hitting a person on a bicycle is likely to overwhelm the protective power of a helmet. When I lived in Utah, I remember a case of somebody unintentionally mountain-biking off a cliff. But most bike accidents occur because the front wheel catches a rock or a curb, or gets caught in a street drain. It’s in these most common accidents that the helmet makes the most difference, potentially changing the outcome of these common accidents from uncomfortable scrapes to seriously life-altering.

So good parents will insist on their children wearing bike helmets. Better parents will make sure they fit right. Insane parents will make the kid wear the helmet to bed.

So it confuses me when I see a parent and child bicycling together (I love seeing that! Good exercise and fun with the kid!) and the child is wearing a helmet but the parent is not.

Nobody wants or anticipates an accident. That’s why they’re called accidents. Being a good, experienced, adult bicyclist does not protect you from a head injury. Wearing a helmet does. So picture the following scenarios. The child goes over the handlebars--parent stops, assesses the situation, uses the cellphone or flags down some help as needed. The parent goes over the handlebars--who is looking after the child? Can the child summon help if needed? Will the child’s judgment about what to do have suboptimal implications for the injured parent? And then how well off will the child be?

A perspective empathic to the child leads to a conclusion that the child needs a helmet, but so does the parent. So when you go bicycling with your child, please wear a helmet--for the kid’s sake.

There are, of course, other examples of this kind of decision about the safety of the child. We put our children in car seats, though they are obviously restrictive and children often don’t like them. I’ll ask the same questions as I did for bike helmets. Did you research this yourself? Do they actually work? What, specifically , do they prevent? If your child complains about sitting in one, do you give in and let them climb from back seat to front or play in the back of the station wagon like I did over 40 years ago? Why don’t you? What made you believe? After all, you know that seat belts won’t always protect you, and that plenty of people are injured and killed in auto accidents who are wearing seatbelts. Even people who never met somebody who was in a horrible car crash wear seatbelts. At some point, they believed that they are safer. I remember seeing ads on TV about buckling up for safety. My sister and I had to pester our parents about wearing seatbelts--which didn’t retract and weren’t convenient back in the stone age. It took a lot of annoying before they regularly did it just to shut us up. I wonder why they were so resistant to doing this, and I’m sad to say I have missed my chance to ask them.

I don’t think reasonable people need absolute perfection to take advantage of these potentially life-saving technologies. Most of us know that putting on that bike helmet doesn’t eliminate our risk, it just cuts it down a lot. We should act on that to help protect our children. I don’t think that most readers who got this far will think my logic particularly controversial. When it comes to sitting in the car seat or wearing a bicycle helmet, the empathic parent does not negotiate with their child. It’s helmet on or no bicycling allowed.

When I read the tragic story about the unvaccinated baby in Minnesota who died of HIB disease--pretty much preventable with vaccine since 1988--I wondered what the parents had thought beforehand. Did they do their own research or did they take somebody’s word for it? Whose word? Who did they trust to guide them about the potential protection of their child from this deadly disease? What were their information sources to make this important decision? How authoritative is a web page? Did they research the vaccine? Did they research the disease it prevents (it’s a bad one)? Did they always put the baby in a car seat?

How to fit a bike helmet video.

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Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?