As kids venture outside for that feeling of freedom only a bicycle or skateboard can offer, grownups, especially medical professionals, can easily envision the injuries that can occur - road rash, broken bones, or even worse, a head injury.
“Not enough parents make their kids wear helmets,” says Maribeth Thornton, executive director of Children’s Services Administration for the UNM Children’s Hospital.
While medical professionals can fix broken bones or stitch up lacerations, what they can’t completely fix is the brain, she says.
“I know it (wearing a helmet) doesn’t necessarily look cool, but neither does a brain injury,” says Thornton, who is also a registered nurse and an avid bicycle rider.
“A broken arm is one thing but the head is what we’re concerned about.”
Traumatic brain injuries from bicycle accidents are far too common in New Mexico, says Helen Sisneros, director of ThinkFirst New Mexico Schools and Community, a UNM Hospital program that focuses on spinal cord and traumatic brain injury education.
From 2011 to 2012, a total of 957 youths between 10 and 17 years old in New Mexico visited an emergency department for a sports-and-recreational-related traumatic brain injury. Bicycle accidents accounted for the highest number of traumatic brain injury hospitalizations, according to a report focusing on traumatic brain injuries by the state Department of Health.
While wearing a helmet makes good safety sense, it’s also a law, says Brian Solan, MD, a professor in the UNM School of Medicine's Department of Family and Community Medicine. He adds that all youths under 18 years old must wear a helmet.
But, he acknowledges, getting teens to comply isn’t easy. Solan, who is a league cycling instructor and works with Bike ABQ, a local advocacy group, suggests allowing kids to choose the helmet. If they get to choose it, they’re more likely to wear it, he says. He also suggests signing up your teen to take a bike safety class held by the city.
Being an experienced rider, though, doesn’t mean you can’t get hurt.
“You never know what someone else is going to do,” Thornton says.
A momentary lapse of balance, a crack in the pavement or a car door unexpectedly opening can send a kid – or anyone on wheels – to the ground, and possibly to the hospital. Teenage boys are prone to being daredevils, she says, and are at high risk for injuries on bikes and skateboards that “will change their life forever.”
And, no one can predict a wipeout, as was the case for Thornton a few months ago. Clad in a helmet, she was pedaling along on a trail when one of her tires caught on a particularly bumpy stretch of railroad tracks. She suffered a small brain bleed, a scraped face that required a few stitches and a fractured pelvis. Though she didn’t display the usual symptoms of a traumatic brain injury, an MRI detected the brain bleed, she says. She knows that had she not strapped on the helmet, her injuries would have been much worse.
- Rains can wash debris onto the road, causing wipeouts.
- Drivers don’t pay attention, so cyclists have to, Thornton says.
- On bike trails, especially those along the bosque, look out for wildlife such as ducks and geese, and be prepared to come to a quick stop.
- Parents need to talk to their kids about bike safety issues, Sisneros says. Families should also discuss the importance of staying within the boundaries parents establish.
Here are some helmet-fitting guidelines:
- Make sure the chin strap is snug.
- Check for minimal wiggle room. No more than two fingers should fit between helmet and head.
- The helmet should sit level on the child’s head. It shouldn’t slide back nor should it slide over the eyes.
- Parents should lead by example and wear a helmet, too, Sisneros says.