Thursday, December 5, 2013

Oak Park Wrong To Mandate That Children Wear Bike Helmets

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.


  1. You write: "'Wearing a proper fitting helmet can reduce the chances of serious head injuries by 85%.' It is hard to argue with statistics like that."

    It's super easy to argue against that particular statistic, because it's wrong. It comes from a 30 year old Seattle study that compared E.R. visits of helmet wearing kids vs non helmet wearing kids.

    In the 1980s, when this study occurred, the helmet wearing population were overwhelmingly children of affluent parents riding in park like settings. Their injuries tended to be cuts from falling over or hitting a park bench, that kind of stuff.

    The non-helmet wearing population tended to be city kids doing stupid stunts with their BMX bikes while riding in traffic. They get hit by a truck and, yeah, they tended to have severe head injuries and death.

    When somebody used the Seattle study data to "prove" that helmets also prevent 85% of broken legs, the study was discredited and people stopped spreading the data. It irks me to see pediatric institutions still spreading that particular lie.

    1. Interesting. Thanks for commenting. Here is a link to a newer study that suggests that places with mandatory bike helmet laws for kids see fewer child deaths: The results of course contradict the position I've taken in this post. However, I still think the most important thing for the long term benefit of your child is to get them on a bike. If that means being flexible when it comes to helmet use, so be it.

    2. That study does not tell you if the rate of deaths per bicycle ride were reduced, or if the rate of bicycle riding was reduced.

      When helmets were made mandatory in Western Australia, the rate of riding bicycles fell, but there was no per-ride reduction in risk; if anything, it rose. The likeliest explanations for this involve things like selection effects and non-compliance -- the most risk-averse riders comply or quit riding, but they were already careful, hence their helmets do little good (a helmet is only helpful if you crash, otherwise it is a needless expense) and removing them from the cycling population makes the measured risk of the remaining population rise.

      Other things *that have actually been measured* include risk compensation by drivers -- they are measured to provide less clearance in passing helmeted cyclists (what better way to feed bad attitudes, for the guy at no risk to consume somebody else's attempts at safety?)

  2. As an Oak Park dad and bike advocate who was fighting this new law, your headline was beautiful to see this morning! Thank you for the support. Between watching the board debate and discussions with several trustees, my complaint has been that the village passed a general law that looks like it's for everyone under 17. When in reality the law will be a low priority for police and trustees swear this isn't going to affect parents pulling kids in bike trailers or families riding together. Why write the ordinance the way it is then? The fact that this came from the board of health rather than the local cycling community is also revealing.

  3. I've seen friends and neighbors argue with their kids over wearing helmets. Too often, parents don't help the argument because they expect their kids to wear helmets but don't do it themselves. Some of those kids will put on the helmets to placate their parents, then take them off as soon as they're out of sight.

    From my interactions with bike riding families, it seems like the best way to encourage helmet use is for parents to set a positive example by consistently wearing them.

    It's been shown in other places that mandating helmet use often discourages bike riding, as some folks will not wear them. Wouldn't it be better to promote it through education rather than setting a legal requirement that some people will never meet?

    The big picture goal of promoting bikes as transportation, thus increasing the number of bikes on the road, will do more to encourage safe conditions than having a helmet requirement.

  4. If they think this makes sense for bicycles, then a similar law should be passed for children under 17 riding in cars (and if they think that is ridiculous, then so is this law for bicycles). I would hope that anyone who legitimately cared about risk had already acquainted themselves with the risk statistics for children in automobiles, as well as the frequency of head injuries as the cause of death for car crash victims, or with the large fraction of severe head injuries caused by car crashes, but it's pretty plainly justified. In addition, because the parent/driver can actually monitor their child (at least until age 16) it makes more sense to hold them responsible. In addition, it is easy to store unused driving helmets in a car, and they don't get nearly as sweaty as bicycle helmets.

  5. excellent review. I have an 8 year old son with cereal palsy but has never ride on a bike and we can't afford a special bike. Can someone help give me information. Thanks.


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