By Dr. Alison Escalante
Our culture can sometimes be a little crazy about safety. But every time a parent says, “We didn’t wear bike helmets when we were kids, and we were just fine,” I remember the summer day when my little brother was 9 years old.
That was the day my little brother was hit by a car.
My mother had been an early adopter of bike helmets, and we were the only kids in town who wore them. Then we moved to a new town and were the only kids who wore helmets in that town too. We were made fun of, and the older boys used to bang on the top of my helmet as I tried to escape the middle school bike racks.
We wore our helmets anyway, because our we were more scared of our mother than of the other kids. Logically, I understood the point of a bike helmet. After all, only half of people wore seatbelts then, but it felt really stupid to me not to just put the seatbelt on.
I remember seeing my brother’s friend run up to the side door of our house and start pounding, shouting that my brother was hit by a car. I watched my dad, the former college varsity runner, take off faster than I’d ever seen him run before. And suddenly I was out the door running after my dad, with an odd sense of watching myself as I ran.
When I caught up to my father he was pushing through a crowd of people shouting, “That’s my son.” The neighbors were in a circle, the first aid squad was on their knees at my brother’s feet. He was lying in a pool of blood and water.
The adults finally let me through, because I kept telling them I was his sister. But they wouldn’t let me touch him, and he was flailing as they tried to get him on a backboard. So I did the only thing I knew to do: I searched for his glasses, which I found several feet away and shattered.
The next thing I remember is the hours in the hospital waiting room, doing my best as an 11 year old girl to stay calm and comfort my 4 year old brother. We heard strange screams from the emergency room, screams that didn’t sound human, but I knew they were my brother. I tried to tell my youngest brother they were coming from somebody else.
Later, my parents updated me that he was technically in a coma, but they were hopeful he would survive. Eventually, he woke up and he wasn’t himself. He had suffered a significant traumatic brain injury. His path to recovery was long, but eventually he attended an Ivy League school.
He lived. The car had been at fault in the accident. The only thing that saved him was the bike helmet. There was no doubt in the doctors’ minds or anyone’s mind that he would have died or been neurologically devastated by that accident. Those early bike helmets were encased in thick hard plastic, and this one was cracked in half.
A year later my brother was featured on the local news in a feature on bike safety: a real life example of how bike helmets save lives. The kids in our town just made even more fun of us, and that was when I learned just how hard it is to get people to change unsafe habits.
Today I’m a mother, and my kids wear their helmets. So far, they are more scared of their mother than of being uncool.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all cyclists wear helmets that fit properly every time they ride, because evidence shows that helmets reduce the risk of injury and death. In fact, the evidence is so clear the AAP says it should be the law. “The bicycle helmet is a very effective device that can prevent the occurrence of up to 88% of serious brain injuries. Despite this, most children do not wear a helmet each time they ride a bicycle, and adolescents are particularly resistant to helmet use.” (AAP Policy statement 2001).
It starts with us. I urge parents to wear their own bike helmets every time they ride so that it becomes normal to their children. How can we hold them to a standard that we won’t maintain? If I want my kids to be wearing their helmets rather than hanging them off the handlebars as soon as their are out of sight like I see so many kids doing, then I need to wear mine.
I always advise parents that just like the rule is “no seatbelt, no car” the rule is “no helmet, no bike.” We don’t question the use of seatbelts anymore, wearing them just seems to be obvious. But we used to question seatbelts. I can’t wait until the day when we think of bike helmets the same way we think of seatbelts: essential. Why wouldn’t you wear a helmet?
Alison Escalante MD is a Pediatrician on a mission, with a clear, 3-step method to help parents raise kids skillfully AND enjoy doing it. She is a TEDx speaker and writes a column for Psychology Today. Find her at ThePrimaryCarer.com or watch her TEDx talk HERE.