My daughter loves Sesame Street. While the trademark opening song plays, we see Elmo riding his tricycle … wearing a helmet. My sister is buying my child a tricycle and recently called to ask, “Should I buy her a helmet too?”
In the era of Britax car seats, gluten-free cookies, and mass email blasts reporting toys found to contain lead paint, safety is a motherhood obsession. I worry about my child’s safety all day every day. I cut up her grapes so she won’t choke. I take away the beaded necklaces she catches at the Fourth of July parade. I check the recall lists to make sure none of her toys are on it.
But wearing a helmet on a tricycle? Is that taking safety concerns too far? I thought so at first. But then a glamorous actress-mom took a ski lesson and died, reportedly, of a head injury sustained on a beginner slope. The tragedy got me thinking—obsessing, actually—about helmets and a few activities that should always require wearing one, no matter what.
Bicycles: No-Brainer or Pain in the Neck?
These days, it seems the vast majority of kids and adults wear helmets on bicycles. Sadly, research sometimes tells a different story. A disheartening national survey released last year (based on 2002 interviews) found only half of cyclists wearing helmets for some trips and only about one-third wearing helmets for all trips.
Wearing a helmet while cycling should be—pardon the pun—a no-brainer. Head injuries are the type of bicycle injury most likely to cause death. Helmet use can reduce injury risk by 85 percent, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
About 700 cyclists were killed on the roads in 2007 and bicycle accidents sent more than half a million people to emergency rooms. About 67,000 of those hurt had head injuries, according to the National Helmet Safety Institute.
I’m hard-pressed to find any reason not to wear a helmet when riding a bike. The main argument against seems to be that some people feel helmet laws take away their freedom of choice. Some people find helmets hot and uncomfortable and just don’t want to wear them. There are also theories that cyclists will take greater risks if they believe they’re protected by a helmet and that car drivers will be less cautious around cyclists wearing helmets. Others say requiring helmets will discourage people from biking. Another argument against bike helmet laws is that people in other countries, such as Holland, do not wear them.
I find none of these reasons compelling enough to offset the obvious reality that the unprotected head colliding with pavement is a very bad thing.
But what about other activities that have traditionally been less helmet-friendly?
Skiing: A Choice Between Head Protection and Vision?
Skiing, like cycling, leaves the participant’s head vulnerable. Both activities involve speed, and both are frequently done in the presence of others who may be less experienced and more careless. Both can become more dangerous due to change in weather conditions. So, like cyclists, skiers should wear helmets.
Fortunately, helmet use seems to be rising among skiers and snowboarders, especially among children. A recent survey by the National Ski Area Association found that 43 percent of skiers and snowboarders wore helmets in the 2007–2008 ski season, up from 25 percent in the 2002–03 season. The increase is encouraging, but the number shows that less than half of skiers and boarders are still not wearing helmets.
Given the high-profile skiing accidents over the past few years, I’m not sure why participants hold out on the helmet. Some skiers complain that helmets impair their vision and hearing, making them feel less safe on the slopes. Other experienced skiers who wear helmets dispute this point, though, saying that helmets just require some getting used to. Experts note that you don’t have to be skiing very fast to hurt your head badly.
Skateboards: A Choice Between Being Safe and Being Cool?
About 50,000 kids end up in emergency rooms each year with skateboard injuries. As with skiing, kids on these can go pretty fast. Again, some skateboarders say the helmets impair their peripheral vision. Again, I’m voting yes to helmets.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all skateboarders wear a helmet designed for multi-sport or bicycle use.
Skateboarders tend to be adolescents, and the Academy notes this is the hardest age bracket to convince to take safety precautions that may be even the least bit inconvenient or uncool. It’s up to parents to set and enforce helmet rules early on, so that by the time a child puts looking cool above safety, wearing a helmet is an absolute.
Helmets on a Slow-Poke Scooter?
What about scooters? Kids who ride these are often going a short distance and traveling at a slow speed. Is it going overboard to require kids to always wear helmets? I don’t think so. About 9,000 scooter injuries are reported each year, and about one-third of those are to the head and face, according to the AAP.
A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics concluded that wearing a helmet effectively reduces the risk of head injury. “Most scooter-related injuries are preventable if proper protective gear is used,” the report says. “The use of helmets and of wrist, elbow, and knee padding should be encouraged.”
If your child is already wearing a helmet when she rides her bike, what’s the big deal having her wear it when she’s on her scooter? It seems like a good idea to just make wearing a helmet something you always do when you’re riding something with wheels.
Tricycles: Okay, Come On, You’re Kidding, Right?
Which brings me back around to the issue of tricycles. Will I have my two-year-old wear a helmet when riding a tricycle? I’m already going for the gold in the nervous-Nelly mother Olympics. Unlike too-cool-for-school skateboarders and snowboarders, I have no rep to maintain.
Toddlers pedaling around on trikes do not often end up in the ER. Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that wearing a helmet while riding a trike reduces the chance of injury and promotes helmet-wearing habits later in life.
That’s all I need to hear. My kid will be like Elmo, wearing a helmet while riding her trike. I just can’t think of a good reason not to.