Helmets a must for child’s safety

HEALTH matters

After one of our coldest and snowiest winters in recent memory, kids are finally back on their bikes, scooters, roller blades and skateboards. Gliding along on wheels is a great way to get exercise, fresh air and to spend time together as a family, but don’t let the rush to have fun get in the way of safety.

We’ve all heard it countless times, but it bears repeating: wearing a helmet when riding, boarding or blading is essential. It’s the most effective way to protect your child’s brain and possibly avoid permanent brain damage.

About 300 children die and 430,000 are injured every year on bikes. Most of the deaths are from a brain injury and nine out of 10 bicyclists who are killed while riding are not wearing a helmet. Children 14 and under are much more likely to be injured than older riders, but only about half of all children in that age group even own a helmet, and only about one in four wear a helmet every time they ride their bike. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have bicycle helmet use laws (usually for riders under 16). Illinois is not one of them, so parents in our state have to set the rules for their children.

It’s true that many children fall off their bikes and get nothing more than a skinned knee that will heal, but the consequences of a brain injury can be lifelong and severe. A concussion can result in several months of headaches, trouble concentrating, blurred vision, irritability and difficulty sleeping. A more severe brain injury could result in permanent problems with learning and behavior, and in extreme cases, a child may be left unable to talk, walk or eat.

It’s important to remember that a helmet should be worn with all wheeled mobility. Just like with bikes, the majority of injured skateboarders, scooter riders and in-line skaters are under age 15. Every year, more than 100,000 people are treated in hospital emergency departments for injuries related to in-line skating, while nearly 40,000 seek emergency treatment for skateboarding injuries and another 40,000 are seen for injuries while on a scooter.

Bikes, scooters, rollerblades and skateboards are often used around cars and many children are injured when they are struck. But cars aren’t the only thing to worry about. Children on in-line skates often cruise along at 10 to 12 mph, which is about as fast as the fastest marathon runners.

So why doesn’t every child wear a helmet? Surveys have found children seem to shy away from helmets for a few reasons: they don’t believe the helmet will really protect them, they don’t like the helmet’s appearance, peer pressure and lastly, they think they don’t need it since they aren’t going to get into a serious crash.

Children should learn to prepare for the unexpected by wearing a helmet even when they think they don’t need one.

Manufacturers have tried to address the issue of children’s tastes by offering many different styles with a variety of outer shells to suit almost every taste. With a little searching every child should be able to find a style that they can be proud to wear. The issue of peer pressure is hard to overcome and can only be challenged by the parent’s insistence of no helmet, no ride.

As for the children who think a helmet won’t protect them, you may want to let them in on a few cold, hard facts: kids who don’t wear a helmet have at least four times the risk for brain injury as those who do wear one, wearing a helmet reduces the risk of head injury by about 85 percent and if every bicyclists wore a helmet one life would be saved every day and one head injury would be prevented every four minutes.

Helmets are a critical part of summertime safety, but in order to work they have to be worn.

Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at drlisathornton@gmail.com.

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