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Helmet Laws Head Off Wheel Harm

Education's not enough to keep kids safe on bikes, says study

THURSDAY, Dec. 6, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- While education and encouragement help, the best way to get children to wear bike helmets is to make it the law.

At least that's the way it appears to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who looked at how well Florida's 1997 helmet law is working. The law requires all children younger than 16 to wear helmets while riding bicycles, but it gives Florida counties the ability to opt out. Three counties did.

CDC researchers looked at 22,000 Florida children in kindergarten through grade 5 who rode bikes to school. The researchers actually watched kids as they put their bicycles in school bike racks. In counties where the state law was in place, 79 percent of riders wore helmets, compared with only 33 percent of riders in counties that had opted out of the state law.

"I think we document well enough that a state law is powerful in stimulating kids to wear helmets," says lead study author Dafna Kanny. The findings appear this month in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Why are helmets important?

More than 70 percent of U.S. children ages 5 to 14 (about 28 million kids) ride bicycles. Each year about 200 of them are killed and another 25,000 suffer serious brain injuries in bike accidents.

At least 85 percent of those deaths and serious injuries could be prevented if all young riders wore helmets, say researchers at the University of Washington who have studied this issue extensively and launched a campaign to make helmets mandatory for every biker. Supporters of mandatory helmet laws have a long way to go -- only 19 states, the District of Columbia and scattered individual towns have mandatory helmet laws.

"There are only two ways to get helmets on people -- education and legislation," says Dr. Fred Rivara, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and director of the CDC-funded Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, in Seattle. Rivara says in Washington State, which has no helmet law, educational programs have raised usage from 2 percent in 1986 to about 60 percent last year. But in Washington communities that have passed their own helmet laws, usage has risen to 80 percent or 90 percent.

"Legislation is efficient and effective," Rivara says.

Maria Vegega, chief of traffic-injury control programs for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), says helmet laws work best with an enforcement component. She says one thing that compels kids to wear helmets in Florida is that school administrators fully support the law and don't allow kids to ride to school unless helmets are on their heads.

Carol Stroebel, a consultant on highway-safety injury and health policy, is conducting a survey for NHTSA, examining why some communities pass helmet laws and others don't. Though her findings are still preliminary, she says there is a strong feeling that helmet laws infringe on personal rights. Helmets also are perceived as expensive, and the laws are considered an enforcement burden for police. And she says helmet law are considered as just a stopgap measure that doesn't resolve the big issue -- many streets are too crowded for bicyclists to be riding at all.

Stroebel says communities that have passed the laws are happy with them. "People see them as effective because they are leverage for parents to get their children to wear the helmet," she says.

Rivara says the single, most important factor in getting a helmet on a kid's head is whether or not a parent is willing to wear one too. "If a parent wears a helmet, in 95 percent of the cases their children do too."

Rivara says there is no need to buy the most expensive helmet -- those that sell for $20 or less are just as good as long as they meet the 1999 standard set by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Helmets that meet that standard should say that clearly on the packaging.

What To Do

If you're buying a bicycle for your child this holiday season, make sure you also buy a helmet. For help choosing one, try Emory University's Helmet Resource Center.

To check whether your state or community has a helmet law, the Snell Memorial Foundation keeps track of bike-related legislation all over the country. For the latest news, check Rivara's Harborview Medical Center site on bike injuries.

SOURCES: Interviews with Dafna Kanny, Ph.D., former CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer; Fred Rivara, M.D., professor of pediatrics, University of Washington, and director, Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, Seattle; Maria Vegega, Ph.D., chief, Office of Traffic Injury Control Programs, NHTSA; Carol Stroebel, highway-safety injury and health policy consultant; Dec. 1, 2001, American Journal of Epidemiology
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