Bike helmets have saved many children -- and adults -- from serious injury or death. Indeed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says helmets are 85 percent effective in reducing head injuries and 88 percent effective in reducing brain injuries.
Helmet usage continues to climb as a result of better-fitting and better-looking helmets, public education, and state helmet laws.
They're also a real bargain, selling for as little as $15 in discount stores. And unlike clothes, kids don't outgrow them every year. Helmets usually come with two or three sets of foam fitting pads so you can change to thinner padding and make more room in the helmet as your child's head grows.
What to Buy
Today's helmets are more comfortable, thanks to lightweight materials and ventilation holes that allow for better air flow to keep heads cool. Some even have openings that a ponytail can fit through. Today's helmets are also safer. The Consumer Product Safety Commission's mandatory helmet standards took effect in March 1999. Any helmet made after that date must meet that standard and should carry a label saying it is CPSC-compliant.
Anytime a helmet has been in a serious fall or crash, it should be replaced, even if you can't see actual damage. The stress on the materials from the impact could make the helmet less effective the next time.
Prior to that date, helmets typically met the voluntary standards set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the Snell Memorial Foundation, or the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). These helmets are no longer available in stores. If you have one of these helmets, the CPSC says it provides sufficient protection; it's not necessary to replace it with one that meets the 1999 federal standard until your child outgrows it or the helmet has been in a crash.
Bike helmets also should be worn by children on tricycles and are recommended for such other sports as inline skating and skateboarding. If your child engages in aggressive skateboarding or skating maneuvers, consider buying a multi-sport helmet sold specifically for those activities. The multi-sport helmet covers more of the back of the head for protection during backward falls. These are not designed for biking, however, and shouldn't be used as a substitute for a bike helmet.
Kids shouldn't wear their bike helmets while playing on the playground. The helmet can become trapped in playground equipment and cause strangulation. CPSC is aware of at least two children who have died this way.
What About Toddlers?
Toddler-size helmets are made for kids who ride in seats on their parents' bikes or for young tricyclers. They are very light-weight because toddlers don't have strong neck muscles. Under the 1999 CPSC standard, helmets for kids ages 4 and under must provide extra coverage at the back and sides. These helmets are not for babies under 1 year of age, however. No youngster that age should travel by bike, either in a child seat or trailer.
It's difficult to get a toddler to tolerate a helmet, but it can be done. Ease into it well before taking a bike ride. Try having him wear it for short periods around the house, maybe with a Darth Vader or pro-football type costume. Put yours on, too, so he can see that it's something everybody does. With luck, when he has his first ride, he'll enjoy the outing so much that he'll forget he's wearing the helmet. If he absolutely refuses to wear it, then delay bike riding until he's ready.
You'll have an easier time getting your child to wear his helmet consistently if it fits comfortably. Ask for a salesperson's help to get the right size, and have your child try it on in the store before you buy it.
It's very important that the helmet be worn level on the head. If it's tilted back, the forehead is left unprotected. If it's too low on the forehead, the back of the head becomes vulnerable. The chin strap should fit snugly.
Getting Your Child to Wear It
Bicycle safety requires tough love. From the first day your child gets on her bicycle, the message should be clear: no helmet, no bike riding. If you make this non-negotiable, and punish a violation by taking away her wheels for a few days, she'll likely choose to cooperate. If she doesn't, she can walk.
To make your child more willing to wear his helmet, set an example by always wearing your own helmet. This is especially effective with younger children because they like to imitate adult behavior. Wearing your helmet could save your life, too!
CPSC has a “Get in the Helmet Habit” Web site with activities for kids and information for parents at www.bikehelmet.org. You also can get the material by calling 800-638-2772.
Some states and local jurisdictions have passed laws requiring that children wear bike helmets. Age limits differ. Find out whether there is a law in your area. The possibility of a fine is an added incentive for kids to keep their helmets on.
Point out to your child that professional athletes wear helmets—including members of the Olympics bicycle racing teams.
Also, let your kids help you pick out their helmets. Some prefer particular styles or colors, or ones that come with a variety of stickers so kids can decorate them themselves.
Be sure to choose a helmet with good ventilation. Kids on bikes work up a sweat. The helmet will stay more comfortable—and be less likely to be removed—if it has adequate openings to let in cool breezes.
Many community groups work with parents to get kids to don helmets. Police officers in some towns give ice cream cone coupons to helmet-wearing children they see on bicycles. Bicycle safety is becoming part of many schools' curricula, and some schools require students to wear helmets if they ride to school. Community groups hold bike fairs at schools or other locations to teach safety rules and distribute free or discounted helmets to kids who need them.
Positive reinforcement works: Don't forget to praise your child for wearing a helmet, especially when she's first getting used to the idea. You might reward her with special treats occasionally for wearing the helmet without being reminded.