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Head Smart Wearing A Bicycle Helmet Is One Simple Step To Health And Safety

Mon., Aug. 28, 1995

A simple $25 purchase may be the best thing parents can do to protect their child against the No. 1 health threat to children today.

Dr. Terence Neff, a pediatrician in Coeur d’Alene, knows what the threat is. He sees it all too often. And the saddest part is, in a vast majority of cases, it is preventable.

“There’s no question the leading cause of death and injury in children ages 5-18 is accidents,” says Neff.

And one of the leading causal factors for those accidents is children not wearing helmets when they ride their bicycles.

Neff says the situation is one result of the faster pace of our lives.

“It’s not uncommon for people to drive 35 mph down residential streets. The pace of life is quicker. More serious accidents occur.”

Last year, 280 children died from bicycle crashes and more than 144,000 were treated for head injuries, according to a public health report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We’re talking about major health issues here,” said Neff. “Eighty-five percent of all injuries are preventable.”

Washington state Rep. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, agrees. She sees bicycle helmets as another example of preventive methods saving people’s lives and making a dent in the public subsidy of health-care costs.

“This is a question of public health,” said Brown. “Look at what public agencies spend on one accident.”

Several bills mandating the wearing of bicycle helmets were introduced in the Washington Legislature last session. Senate Bill 5331, calling for a mandatory bicycle helmet law to take effect on Jan. 1, 1996, passed in the Senate, but went no further.

“It died in committee,” said Brown.

So if wearing a bicycle helmet is such a good idea, why don’t more people use them?

“I think there are several factors,” said Jerry Kreider, a clerk at Columbia Cycle-Craft & Hobby in Spokane. “Some people think they might look funny, they’re too hot, it’s extra money.”

Kreider said the cost of a helmet can run anywhere from $20 to $50.

Neff and other health professionals have attempted to make bicycle helmets available to any child in Kootenai County who wants one.

“We’ve given out bicycle helmets to 10 percent of kids in Kootenai County,” said Neff.

If Washington state were to mandate the use of bicycle helmets, then it would need to help make them available to people, said Brown.

“We have to pay attention to the cost issue. We should be sensitive to moderate incomes and growing heads,” she said, noting that children will outgrow helmets in the same way they outgrow shoes.

But even when kids have helmets, they still need to wear them. Just like seat belts, helmets don’t do much good if they are not used.

“Sixty percent of kids own helmets, but only 35 percent of those kids use them,” says Neff. Neff sees both education and legislative action as methods for increasing the use of helmets among children.

Bicycle safety and helmet use “should be taught more in schools, like drug education,” he says. Neff points out that drug education crosses over to parents, with the same lessons applying equally to adults and children. But he says many adults don’t feel the same way when it comes to bicycle helmets.

“You teach by example,” said Neff. “Parents say, ‘They’re a good idea, but I’m not going to wear one.”’

Neff sees mandatory helmet laws as the best way of increasing the use of bicycle helmets among children.

“For the general population, it’s going to require legislative action.”

And legislative action works.

In 1990, a law was passed in Howard County, Md., that required the use of a bicycle helmet by anyone under the age of 16.

Before the law took effect, only 4 percent of Howard County child bicyclists were observed to be wearing helmets. Seven months after passage of the law, the number had jumped to 47 percent.

Kreider says that while he doesn’t need a law to make him use a bicycle helmet, he still sees the benefit of such a measure.

“I personally think it (a law) would be a good idea,” he said. “I don’t ride a block without a helmet.”

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. ON THE LOOKOUT Things to check when buying a bicycle helmet: Does the helmet meet the standards of either the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the Snell Memorial Foundation, a private, not-for-profit helmet testing organization whose standards exceed those of ANSI? Check the helmet for a sticker, or ask the clerk if the helmet meets accepted safety standards. Does the helmet fit properly? Try several different helmets on for size. This will help determine what the best size is for you. Make sure the strap fits snugly around your ears and under your chin. The helmet should not wobble or shift on your head. The helmet should rest low on your forehead, just above your eyebrows. Don’t let it slip back on your head. For more information, call the Snell Memorial Foundation at (800) 377-4833.

2. INSURERS LOBBY FOR MANDATORY-HELMET LAW The last Washington state legislative session was kind to insurance companies. Substantial portions of the state health insurance plan were rolled back, the result of heavy lobbying by the insurance industry. The lobbying effort was comprehensive, reaching all the way to bicycle helmets. A subparagraph in Senate Bill 5331, a bill requiring all bicycle riders to wear helmets, would have limited a person’s ability to collect damages if no helmet was worn. Although the bill died in committee, the measure points out how insurance companies are pushing preventive measures as a means of controlling health-care costs. “They tried to do the same thing with seat belts,” said attorney Russell Van Camp. “I do not agree with the fact that an insurance company could say that if a rider does not wear a helmet, then there is evidence of contributory negligence.” He pointed out that protective clothing is also available for bicycle riders, and insurance companies could demand the clothing also be worn. The effort by the insurance industry points out how public health issues are being tied to lifestyle and behavior. As employers, taxpayers and insurance underwriters look to control costs, preventive safety measures get serious consideration. “It is another example of how formerly mundane issues like bicycle helmets are becoming public health issues,” said state representative Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. “When people don’t take extra care to take care of themselves, we all pay,” said Diane Turner, executive director of the Washington Insurance Council (WIC), a non-profit organization supported by the insurance industry. “You could be the best bicycle rider in the world, but if someone runs a red light and hits you, it’s not going to matter.” “It becomes a social problem,” said Larry Kees, executive vice president of the Independent Agents and Brokers of Washington. “The insurance companies are saying someone should pay, but not us.” The industry is trying to make helmets available to people if they want to use them. Turner said WIC will help provide information on how to obtain free helmets for people who cannot afford them. A comparative study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows legislative mandates are the most effective means of increasing bicycle helmet use, followed by a community-based approach. Surprisingly, the use of educational programs in schools was the least effective. The problem is compliance. While adults are responsible to see that seat belts, infant car seats and motorcycle helmets are used properly, a substantial number of bicycle riders are young children, and young children sometimes forget to wear helmets. “In general, personal responsibility is a good thing, but it’s almost a self-defeating argument when we are talking about kids,” said Kees. “Children can’t be held responsible in a legal sense.” Brown says this is one area where the law should be used to educate people. “Kids should know if they are not wearing one, someone may stop you and say you need to be wearing a helmet.” Patrick Heald/Correspondent

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. ON THE LOOKOUT Things to check when buying a bicycle helmet: Does the helmet meet the standards of either the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the Snell Memorial Foundation, a private, not-for-profit helmet testing organization whose standards exceed those of ANSI? Check the helmet for a sticker, or ask the clerk if the helmet meets accepted safety standards. Does the helmet fit properly? Try several different helmets on for size. This will help determine what the best size is for you. Make sure the strap fits snugly around your ears and under your chin. The helmet should not wobble or shift on your head. The helmet should rest low on your forehead, just above your eyebrows. Don’t let it slip back on your head. For more information, call the Snell Memorial Foundation at (800) 377-4833.

2. INSURERS LOBBY FOR MANDATORY-HELMET LAW The last Washington state legislative session was kind to insurance companies. Substantial portions of the state health insurance plan were rolled back, the result of heavy lobbying by the insurance industry. The lobbying effort was comprehensive, reaching all the way to bicycle helmets. A subparagraph in Senate Bill 5331, a bill requiring all bicycle riders to wear helmets, would have limited a person’s ability to collect damages if no helmet was worn. Although the bill died in committee, the measure points out how insurance companies are pushing preventive measures as a means of controlling health-care costs. “They tried to do the same thing with seat belts,” said attorney Russell Van Camp. “I do not agree with the fact that an insurance company could say that if a rider does not wear a helmet, then there is evidence of contributory negligence.” He pointed out that protective clothing is also available for bicycle riders, and insurance companies could demand the clothing also be worn. The effort by the insurance industry points out how public health issues are being tied to lifestyle and behavior. As employers, taxpayers and insurance underwriters look to control costs, preventive safety measures get serious consideration. “It is another example of how formerly mundane issues like bicycle helmets are becoming public health issues,” said state representative Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. “When people don’t take extra care to take care of themselves, we all pay,” said Diane Turner, executive director of the Washington Insurance Council (WIC), a non-profit organization supported by the insurance industry. “You could be the best bicycle rider in the world, but if someone runs a red light and hits you, it’s not going to matter.” “It becomes a social problem,” said Larry Kees, executive vice president of the Independent Agents and Brokers of Washington. “The insurance companies are saying someone should pay, but not us.” The industry is trying to make helmets available to people if they want to use them. Turner said WIC will help provide information on how to obtain free helmets for people who cannot afford them. A comparative study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows legislative mandates are the most effective means of increasing bicycle helmet use, followed by a community-based approach. Surprisingly, the use of educational programs in schools was the least effective. The problem is compliance. While adults are responsible to see that seat belts, infant car seats and motorcycle helmets are used properly, a substantial number of bicycle riders are young children, and young children sometimes forget to wear helmets. “In general, personal responsibility is a good thing, but it’s almost a self-defeating argument when we are talking about kids,” said Kees. “Children can’t be held responsible in a legal sense.” Brown says this is one area where the law should be used to educate people. “Kids should know if they are not wearing one, someone may stop you and say you need to be wearing a helmet.” Patrick Heald/Correspondent



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