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Bike helmets work _ if they're worn

Bette Stapleton has watched kids riding their bikes past her store, the Beach Cyclist, since it opened in 1981.

Some of them she recognizes. They have come to the store with their parents, who insist on buying bike helmets for the kids to wear.

"But then I see them without the helmets," Stapleton said. "They think it's not cool. If one kid has a helmet on, and five don't, the one kid won't wear it. There's a lot of peer pressure."

More kids are regularly wearing bicycle helmets, she said, but there are still a lot of unprotected heads.

Stapleton is far from alone in her concern. Under consideration now in Congress is a bill that would disburse $9-million to city and state agencies over the next three years for programs promoting bicycle helmet use, especially among children and teens. The bill would also call for national bike helmet safety standards, replacing voluntary standards now used by helmet manufacturers.

Underlying the nationwide cry for bike helmets are some grim statistics.

Between 1984 and 1988, bicycling accounted for 2,985 head injury deaths and 905,752 head injuries, according to a study conducted for the Centers for Disease Control. The study, published in the December 1991 Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 41 percent of the head injury deaths and 76 percent of head injuries occurred among children younger than 15.

Bike helmets could have prevented as many as 2,500 of those deaths and 757,000 of the head injuries, yet only 10 percent of all cyclists wear helmets and fewer than 2 percent of those who are younger than 15.

Statistics for Florida are even scarier, said Dan Burden, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Florida Department of Transportation.

"Per capita, we're three times the national average for bicycle fatalities," Burden said. In Florida, "more children are injured as a result of bike crashes than any other type of injury."

Although he said more of the fatalities today occur among adults, "we haven't reduced the number of fatalities to kids. There are just more adults riding bikes."

In 1992, Florida had 107 bike deaths and 7,000 reported injuries. Because of the large number of unreported injuries, however, Burden said actual bike injuries in the state last year probably reached 70,000.

He blamed the high numbers on a combination of year-round good biking weather, fast-growing urban environments that are unfriendly to bikers and elderly bikers who do not recover easily from accidents.

Burden said the Florida Legislature has introduced mandatory bike helmet laws in three of the last five years. Each time, the bill easily passed in committee but never got a floor vote.

Where helmet laws have passed, accident rates have dropped. For example, Burden said, bike deaths in Australia have decreased 37 percent since a mandatory helmet law was enacted about three years ago. Norway has seen similar results.

For now, however, Florida is concentrating on education to protect its bikers. Kay Medwick of the Pinellas County Bicycle Advisory Committee said she and local police officers constantly promote bike helmets at schools and PTA meetings.

"We're seeing some success," Medwick said. "There are many more helmets on the roads today than five or 10 years ago."

Medwick said, however, that Pinellas County riders still have a way to go.

"I still get a lot of excuses from kids," she said. "They say the helmets are hot, they left them at a friend's house, they're just riding in the front yard, so they don't need (the helmets).

"But it doesn't take a fall from a high perch. A small child on a training bike can have the same accident as a kid on a racing bike."

Often, a fall from a bike means some scratches and teary eyes, but, according to the National Head Injury Foundation, the cost of supporting a child who has suffered a severe head injury, on average, is $4.5-million over the accident victim's lifetime.

That figure includes surgical and rehabilitation costs, loss of the person's salary to society and losses to the person's family.

Children aren't the only ones griping about bike helmets. Medwick said parents often ask why they and their kids need to wear helmets now, after surviving a lifetime without them.

Price is also a factor. Getting a helmet recommended by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, one that has been tested and certified by the Snell Memorial Foundation or by the American National Standards Institute, can cost anywhere from $30 to $100 in a retail store. Helmets for a four-member family could mean a week's worth of groceries.

"But what's the use of a $15 helmet, if when you fall, it cracks?" Stapleton said.

Probably the most frequently heard complaint has to do with helmet aesthetics. Stapleton insists that progress has been made.

"Helmets are lighter weight than they used to be, they're more ventilated, and they're cooler as far as colors," Stapleton said. "The ones for children, you can put stickers on them."

Bright colors and flashier designs can't hide the golf ball-shape of the helmet, however.

"The design of the helmet, in order to give full protection, doesn't make a fashion statement," Medwick said. "Why, though, don't people playing football or baseball or Rollerbladers worry about wearing their helmets?"

The basics of bike helmet safety

Q. What does a helmet do?

A. Usually using crushable polystyrene foam, the helmet absorbs the energy of an impact to minimize or prevent head injury. Many helmets also have a hard outer shell that provides extra protection to the head in the event of a collision with a sharp object. Unlike a motorcycle helmet, a bike helmet should be discarded after a fall or collision. It cannot be reused.

Q. What should I look for when buying a bicycle helmet?

A. The helmet should fit snugly, but comfortably, on the rider's head. Some helmets are available with several different thicknesses of internal padding to custom fit the helmet to the user. If a parent is buying a helmet for a child, the child should accompany the parent so the helmet can be tried on for a good fit.

For the helmet to provide protection during impact, it must have a chin strap and buckle that will stay securely fastened. No combination of twisting or pulling should remove the helmet from the head or loosen the buckle.

Q. Are some bicycle helmets safer than others?

A. There are two nationally recognized voluntary safety standards for bicycle helmets sold in the United States. Helmets meeting the Snell Memorial Foundation requirements or the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) requirements will have a label from that organization on the helmet.

Although other helmets can provide equal protection, Snell and ANSI helmets have been tested and will likely provide more thorough protection, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Source: Consumer Product Safety Commission in Washington, D.C.