|Sofia Kevenides learning to ride.|
Oak Park has chosen the stick rather than the carrot when it comes to encouraging safe cycling for children. A new village ordinance will punish the parents of children under 17 where they are caught riding without a helmet. This is the wrong approach.
Few sensible people would dispute the benefits of encouraging children to ride their bikes. Bikes promote independence and good health for kids (and adults). They also happen to be really fun. Injuries sometimes occur, so kids should be taught safe riding practices and should be encouraged to wear a helmet. When kids wear bike helmets the chance of injury is very significantly reduced. According to Children's Hospital of Illinois, "Wearing a proper fitting helmet can reduce the chances of serious head injuries by 85%." It is hard to argue with statistics like that.
However, as a parent the first trick is to get a child riding in the first place. My six year old daughter rides a two wheeler now. She loves it. She wears a helmet. But, such was not always the case. At first, when she was about four, she did not love getting on her bike. My wife and I had to nudge her a bit. Once we got her pedaling, we took up the helmet battle. Often she just would not wear one. Against my better judgement at the time, I let her ride in the driveway and in front of our Logan Square home with her curls flying free in the breeze, helmetless. I was just glad that she was riding and liking it. Sometimes she fell and suffered minor scraps, mostly on her knees and hands. She never hit her head. She rode so slowly that it never seemed like she was at risk of a significant head injury even if she crashed. Eventually, she came to enjoy riding and got good at it. The helmet came next and it was no big deal. She always saw her dad wearing one so it seemed like the natural thing to do. At this point I am glad it did not sweat the helmet thing too much. I just did not want to fight with her about it. I wanted her to see all things bicycle in a positive way. Fighting over wearing a helmet did not seem worth it. I feared it would turn her off riding and would discourage her from getting on her bike. Once she started enjoying her bike, we more forcefully encouraged her to wear a helmet.
Parents learn quickly to pick their battles with their children as the grow from babies to toddlers to full on knee-skinning, dirt pile jumping kids. Yeah, children should be encouraged to bike with a helmet, but first they should be encouraged to just ride. Parents need some leeway with regard to how to accomplish that. The new Oak Park ordinance is fairly harsh. "Parents of children under 17 will be required to pay a $25 fine or perform up to four hours of community service if their child is caught three times riding a bicycle without a helmet," according to The Chicago Tribune. Many parents will feel it necessary to force their children to wear a helmet in the face of this potential punishment. Some may even receive the misleading message that if the law requires helmet use perhaps biking is just too dangerous an activity for their kids. In my opinion, helmet use for kids and adults alike should be encouraged, not mandated.