Rejecting safety rules

Why kids ditch safety equipment when out of parents' sight.

Like many adults, my husband, John, was inconsistent about wearing a bike helmet. And so were our kids, once they hit “a certain age.” Their friends didn’t wear them anymore. They didn’t want to lug them around at school. They couldn’t be bothered. And, to be honest, we slacked off about enforcing the helmet rule.

Then John had a little run-in with a car whose driver carefully checked for oncoming vehicles, but didn’t notice the oncoming bicycle. John was lucky — he had no serious injuries. But he came out of the collision with a bunch of stitches in the back of his head and a new respect for helmets.

“Now when I drive past a kid riding bare-headed, I want to roll down the window and yell, ‘Wear your helmet!’” he confesses. He settled for giving our own kids a really good look at his bloody, stitched-up head and pointing out how easily he could have fractured his skull.

Setting an example

Setting an example with safety equipment is really key once kids are past the age of constant parental supervision, says Tracey Warren, national director of Child Safe Canada. “I consistently see parents riding without their helmets. They have all their little kids in helmets and they’re caring so well for them, making sure they’re safe, and yet I’m thinking, ‘You’re only protecting them for the next three years.’ If those kids see their parents without helmets when they are little, then as soon as they’re about 10, they are likely to ditch them. That’s when you’ll see the kids riding down the road with a helmet clipped around the handlebar.”

Life jackets or personal flotation devices (PFDs) are another classic example. Many adults religiously zip up their children, but neglect to wear a PFD themselves. “Parents will say, ‘But I’m a good swimmer,’” says Warren. “Well, I’m a swim instructor and lifeguard, and you know what? Everybody drowns the same. If you fall and hit your head, you’ll drown the same as a four-year-old.”

Suzanne Robillard, spokesperson for the Canada Safety Council, agrees that parental example is critical. She also acknowledges that it’s not always enough: “My husband took my son to the local hockey rink and said, ‘Of course you’ll wear your helmet,’ but honestly there wasn’t another kid wearing one. That’s really difficult.”

Encouraging equipment use

She has a few ideas to encourage equipment use:

• Buy cool safety equipment. Let your child choose the colour and style, and make sure it fits properly and comfortably.

• Educate your kids about the consequences of a serious skull injury, and why it’s so important to protect the brain. Share relevant news items — every summer there are boating accidents in which adults drown.

• Tell them they’re at the front edge of a social trend. Kids may not be aware that not so long ago, even NHL goalies didn’t wear helmets (and most hockey players were missing several teeth), or that families cruised down the highway without seat belts. That seems crazy now — and so, pretty soon, will biking, skiing or skateboarding unprotected.

• Take the trouble to check. No, you can’t control whether they take their equipment off once they’re out of sight. But you can check that they’re wearing it when they leave. “In the end, it’s a non-negotiable rule to use the safety equipment,” says Robillard.

Why it matters

• “Eighty-five percent of all serious head injuries from bike falls could have been prevented by wearing a helmet,” says Suzanne Robillard of the Canada Safety Council. “In a cycling fall, the forehead usually hits the ground first. This could cause brain damage or death.”

• Bike helmets for kids under 17 are the law in five provinces in Canada. This legislation resulted in a 45 percent drop in bike-related head injuries in kids.

• From 1996 to 2000 in Canada, 85 percent of those who died while boating were not wearing personal flotation devices.

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