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Putting the Brakes on Bike Injuries

Researchers design handlebars whose ends retract when a child falls on them

THURSDAY, Sept. 20, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Making the handlegrips on bikes retract when kids fall on them could prevent hundreds of serious injuries a year, researchers say.

"I can tell you that hundreds of children in the United States have serious abdominal injuries each year from falling off their bikes and landing on the handlebars," says Dr. Flaura Winston, the director of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's TraumaLink in Pennsylvania. "There's serious abdominal or pelvic organ damage that results -- damage to the liver, spleen, intestines and the kidneys."

To find a way to prevent abdominal injury during bicycle accidents, Winston and her colleagues huddled with design students from the University of Pennsylvania's Bioengineering Department for a year to design the new handlebar, the researchers report in a recent New Scientist. "We were looking for a way to reduce the forces upon impact sufficiently to minimize the force of impact and thus minimize the risk of injury."

About 85 million adults and children ride bikes every year, and half a million bike to work daily, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But each year more than 500,000 of them land up in the emergency room after a bicycle crash.

The University of Pennsylvania designers found the solution when they designed handlebars whose ends draw in upon impact, Winston says.

"Under significant force, the ends of the handlebars retract, and, utilizing a damping action in a spring, the retraction mechanism prevents the ends of the handlebars from rebounding," Winston says. The designers also made the ends of the handlebar wider, "so that you spread the force of the impact over a wider area."

Winston says researchers have known for 30 years about handlebar impalement injuries.

"What we found, after doing a study that was published in Pediatrics in 1998, was that children were having these kinds of injuries after minor events, like falling off their bikes," she says.

The study showed that impalement occurred most often when children hit an obstacle at low speed and began to topple off the bike. The momentum made them fall on the ends of the handlebars.

"It typically happens to a child who is relatively new to riding," Winston explains. "They lose control of the bike and the handlebar from a discontinuity, when they're riding from grass to sidewalk, for instance. The handlebars come into initial contact with the child's abdomen as they are falling, and then, as they are landing, they get a secondary impact with the handlebar essentially acting as a blunt spear."

Winston says the hospital is looking for a company to license the new design.

Also, she adds, "In January of 2001, we petitioned the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate the impact performance of handlebars, and that's currently under consideration."

"We were tremendously surprised two years ago to find that children can suffer injuries to the spleen, the stomach, the intestines, the pancreas, the liver from something as innocuous as riding a bicycle," says Angela Mickalide, the program director for the National Safe Kids Campaign in Washington, D.C. "Any design standard that can be improved on in order to protect kids riding their bikes is supported by National Safe Kids."

Mickalide says handlebar injuries "are a part of the spectrum of hidden hazards that have recently come to light -- like 5-gallon bucket drowning or strangulation from drawstrings on children's clothing. And so we applaud Flaura and her colleagues for doing this study because [the handlebar problem] had not been on in the injury control prevention radar screen."

What To Do

Despite the potential for accident, Mickalide wants to remind parents that bicycle riding is an important physical activity for children. "It's fun; it promotes gross motor skills, socializing and independence. Parents need to take a balanced approach to these issues; we don't want them to become either overprotective or turn a deaf ear to these issues."

For more on bicycle safety, including the imperative that all kids wear helmets, see the National Bike Safety Network or the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

SOURCES: Interviews with Flaura Winston, M.D., Ph.D., director, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's TraumaLink, Pa.; Angela Mickalide, Ph.D, program director, National Safe Kids Campaign, Washington, D.C.; September 2001 New Scientist
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