By Francis M. Smith
Bicycles are excellent tools for both transportation and exercise, so it's no surprise that more than 70 percent of American children between the ages of 5 to 14 ride bikes. Unfortunately, bicycles can also present a significant safety risk. Children in the 5-to-14 age group account for more than half of all bicycle-related injuries that require emergency room treatment, and more than one-fifth of bicycle-related fatalities. This is partly due to the fact that children of these ages spend more time on bikes than adults; while most adults have the option of driving from one place to another, a bicycle is the sole independent transportation tool available to many children. Kids aged 5 to 14 spend approximately 50 percent more time behind the handlebars than the average cyclist, giving them substantially more opportunity to be injured.
Though children should not necessarily be dissuaded from riding bicycles in areas where it is safe to do so, it's important to understand the risks associated with riding and how best to reduce those risks. Bicycles are involved in more child injuries than any consumer product other than automobiles, and cycling accounts for more emergency room visits among children between the ages of 5 and 14 than any other sport activity. Male children are overwhelmingly more likely to be injured or killed while riding a bicycle than their female counterparts (likely due in part to differences in the kinds of behavior that is socially encouraged in boys and girls), but any child can be harmed while cycling under the wrong circumstances.
Cars and traffic play a significant role in the dangers that children on bicycles face. About 90 percent of bike fatalities also involve a motor vehicle. Urban areas and residential streets are among the most dangerous locations for cyclists. Though many parents rightly emphasize to their children the importance of caution at intersections, more cyclist fatalities occur on sections of roadways other than intersections – underscoring the importance of remaining careful and alert at all times while riding a bicycle.
Perhaps the single most effective safety measure for protecting children from fatal bicycle accidents is the bicycle helmet. New Jersey law mandates the use of a properly fitted and fastened bike helmet for all riders under the age of 17, unless the child is riding on a closed bike course that is inaccessible to motor vehicles. Many states and municipalities have similar helmet requirements, but despite these laws, more than half of American children fail to wear a helmet consistently when riding. Younger children are more likely to wear helmets, but the practice falls off as kids get older – potentially due to decreased parental supervision, peer pressure, or the assumption that older children are more coordinated and less likely to fall from their bikes. Modeling proper helmet safety behavior by adults is very important: children who ride with peers or adults who wear helmets are more likely to wear them as well.
The importance of wearing a helmet while cycling cannot be overstated; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 26,000 young people under the age of 20 receive emergency room treatment for bicycle-related traumatic brain injuries (TBI) every year. Traumatic brain injuries can have potentially serious or even fatal complications, particularly if the injured person suffers a second blow to the head before fully recovering from the initial injury. Recovering from a TBI can take weeks or months, and the injury can impact the patient's concentration, memory, judgment and impulse control, mood, physical coordination and balance, and vision or other senses.
Repeated studies have shown that bicycle helmets, when properly fitted and correctly secured, substantially reduce a cyclist's risk of suffering several types of serious injury. Proper use of a helmet reduces the likelihood of sustaining a head injury of any kind by 45 percent, and decreases the risk of deadly injury by 29 percent. In addition, bike helmets reduce the chance of brain injury by one-third, and decrease the risk of injury to the face by more than one-quarter. One study reflected even higher benefits, showing a reduction head injury risk of 85 percent and an 88-percent lower chance of severe brain trauma.
Make sure that your child's helmet fits properly and is fastened correctly. It's important to readjust the fit of the helmet as your child grows, replacing the helmet if necessary. Check to make sure that any helmet you buy meets safety certification standards, and is undamaged; a cracked helmet won't protect your child, so be sure to replace it after a crash or if the helmet is dropped onto a hard surface. Your child should avoid wearing overly loose clothing while cycling. Add reflectors and lights to the bicycle if your child rides in the dark. Teach your child to obey all traffic signals.
If you or a loved one have been injured in a serious accident, please contact me or call me at 908-233-5800 for a free consultation.