Why Bike Helmets Require Us to Use Our Heads

It seemed like a sweet, innocuous vacation photograph: President Obama and several others out for a bike ride. However, while the children pictured were wearing bike helmets, only one of the adults was helmeted, and it wasn't the president. Bike-safety groups immediately sent up alarms─enough that White House press secretary Bill Burton was asked about it during his daily briefing. Burton's reply: "I know he generally wears bicycle helmets. He supports the wearing of bicycle helmets." 

Granted, it seemed like proof of the August slow-news period. There are, of course, many more things in the world to worry about. However, there was some reason for the safety groups to be up in arms.

Whether a kid wears a helmet is often determined by whether other bike riders─including parents─are wearing helmets as well.

Maddeningly, two thirds of kids between 11 and 19 still aren’t using bike helmets, despite national marketing campaigns and school-based education sessions. In these programs, kids are warned that a helmet is the best way to avoid becoming one of the 130,000 kids every year in the ER with a bike-crash head injury.

But a British team of social scientists analyzed a dozen studies on how to solve this. They zeroed in on two similar programs in Maryland and Quebec, which have boosted bike-helmet use by 460 percent─nearly eliminating the problem.

What was their secret? Rather than teaching kids how important it was to wear helmets, the successful programs simply went into the neighborhoods and handed out free helmets─ideally, to roving packs of kids all at once. When the pack rode off in new headgear, it changed the equation. Not every kid in the neighborhood had to be given a helmet─just enough to tip the impression that it was uncool to wear one.

This raises the question: how many things are we trying to teach kids about, in the abstract, when instead they need to simply try it out, learning by doing? When we use the old saying “Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime,” we don't mean that he should attend a PowerPoint seminar on how to properly string a line. We mean that we should hand the kid a pole, and take him to the nearest river.

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