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Need to Know! Bicycle Helmets

August 26th, 2010

The average cyclist crashes about every 4,500 miles. Kids? Seems like at least once a week. Wearing a helmet has been shown to prevent up to 75% of cyclists’ head injuries… and are required by law in the state of North Carolina for all cyclists under age 16.*

Here’s what you need to know about choosing and wearing a bicycle helmet.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A HELMET

  • Helmets must meet the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission standard. Look for one of the following stickers: CPSC sticker, or ASTM’s F1447 sticker, or Snell’s B-95 sticker. (CPSC and ASTM standards are identical; Snell’s is even tougher, but you’ll rarely see these.)
  • Choose color with visibility in mind: white is still best, next in line come other bright colors that are easily seen by drivers.
  • Choose a helmet that is totally smooth, with no points that can snag. A good helmet is designed to protect your head in case the worst possible event occurs: if you are hit by a car. It needs to be smooth to “glide” along pavement (instead of catching in a way that bends your neck), and to prevent any protrusion from catching under the bumper of a car.
  • If you ride a mountain bike, look for models that offer protection from trailside hazards.
  • If you have unusual needs–or if you simply want help with your helmet choice–ask for help at a specialized cycling store, which will have a wider range of products and the expertise to help. For example, there are helmets to fit unusually large heads…padding to fit unusually small heads…helmets with “ponytail ports” for people with long hair…helmets with no large top vents for people with sparse or no hair.

WHAT TO AVOID

Avoid anything that prevents you from wearing a helmet properly, or which violates the definition of a “good helmet” listed above. In particular:

  • AVOID dark colors
  • AVOID extreme aero shapes, which provide a convenient “lever” for knocking the helmet aside in a fall
  • AVOID squared-off, ridged, ribbed, or spiked shapes
  • AVOID helmets without a standards sticker on the inside
  • AVOID helmets with thin straps (more likely to break)
  • AVOID helmets that don’t allow good visibility
  • AVOID helmets that don’t fit properly
  • AVOID helmets with strap adjustments that are too complicated for comfortable, everyday use

WHEN TO REPLACE A HELMET

  • For sure, if the last time you bought a helmet was before 1999, the last time the U.S. government updated safety standards.
  • Replacement recommended every 5 years, but can go longer if you don’t ride often.
  • For sure, if the helmet has a crack or dent.
  • Recommended after any crash–some damage may not be visible.
  • If your helmet shows bubbling or other signs of heat damage

HOW TO WEAR A HELMET

For a video on how to do a helmet fit test, click here: Helmet Fit Test Video

For an illustration of the right and wrong ways to wear a helmet, click here: “Do you know the right way to wear a helmet?” or here: “Easy Steps to Properly Fit a Bicycle Helmet”

  • A helmet is properly worn level on the head–not tilted forward or backward.
  • The helmet should sit low on the forehead, one or two finger-widths above the eyebrows.
  • The strap should be fit snugly–not loose, not too tight for comfort.
  • Once on the head, try to move it with your hands. The helmet shouldn’t move more than an inch in any direction no matter how hard you try.

SPECIAL INFORMATION ABOUT HELMETS FOR KIDS

  • Every child who rides alone or on the back of an adult’s bike needs a helmet. However, until a child reaches age 1 year, the neck muscles aren’t strong enough to support a helmet. If you have questions about riding with a toddler, talk with your child’s pediatrician about the best protection.
  • Replace a helmet as often as you need to assure a good, safe fit. Consider a helmet at least as important as shoes.
  • Some child helmets have several foam inserts of different thicknesses. These can be changed out to accommodate a growing head. (And the different thicknesses do NOT affect the protection offered by the helmet.)
  • Teach your child that bike helmet is for biking or skating with in-line skates only. Skateboarding requires a different helmet.
  • VERY IMPORTANT WARNING: A child SHOULD NOT wear a bike helmet on the playground. Children have died due to crush or strangulation when the helmet got caught on climbing equipment. For more information about this topic, click here: “Wear Bike Helmets On Bicycles – Not On Playgrounds”

HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO WEAR A HELMET

  • Start by being a good role model: Wear a helmet yourself while riding!
  • Make wearing a helmet a requirement right from the first day your child starts riding a 2-wheeler. If you make it an important rite of passage, it will feel more like something to be proud of. (Do you remember the day your training wheels were finally taken off? That kind of pride.)
  • Explain why wearing a helmet is important.
  • Talk with the parents of your child’s friends to let them know that you require your child to wear a helmet…and that you would like their help in applying that rule. This is a great opportunity to ask if they also require their children to wear helmets–kids are more likely to wear helmets if their friends also do.
  • Point out cyclists wearing helmets as you’re driving, or if you watch bike races on television.

FAMOUS LAST WORDS…

From actual people who crashed:

  • “I didn’t think I needed a helmet–I was only going about a mile.”
  • “I don’t know what happened. The brakes locked on a turn and I flipped over the front wheel.”
  • “I wasn’t expecting that rock to be there.”

* While your child’s brain depends on a helmet, don’t forget that your child depends on you and your healthy brain. The HensonFuerst traumatic brain injury team has seen too many people suffer permanent, catastrophic brain damage from bicycle accidents.

INFORMATION SOURCES:

Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

SafeKids USA

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: Helmet Laws by State

ASTM International: Standards Worldwide

REI: How to Choose a Bicycle Helmet

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Wikipedia: Bicycle Helmet