Skip to main content UVA Health logo of UVA Health
Healthy Balance

Bike Safety: Bike Helmets and More

“Bike helmets are for wimps.”

“This helmet makes me too hot.”

“Oh good, my mom’s not looking. I can take off my helmet.”

I heard these statements frequently when I was a kid. We all believed bike helmets were hot, stuffy and the ultimate in dork-dom. The notion that you could be riding your bicycle one moment and brain-injured the next was beyond us. Being cool was much more important than being safe.

But William J. Brady, MD, knows better. Brady, who works in UVA’s emergency room, recently saw two patients involved in separate bike accidents: an 8-year-old girl and a 35-year-old man. Both escaped with minor scrapes. Both were wearing helmets that cracked upon impact.

“I looked at them and said, ‘This helmet saved your life. That would have been your head and brain with a crack in the middle of it,’” Brady says. “And in general, brains don’t do well with cracks.”

That’s why our Community Outreach program teaches local third-graders about bike safety and fits them for helmets. This year, about 300 kids in Greene and Nelson counties benefited from the program, which also satisfies a physical education Standard of Learning (SOL) requirement for the schools.

Head Trauma: Don’t Crack the Egg

Community Outreach coordinator Angela Taylor begins each bike safety class by asking students if they already have helmets. In one class, she recalls, none of the students did.

Yet wearing a helmet can reduce the risk of head injury by up to 85 percent, according to Safe Kids.

“Something as simple as a fall off your bike in the driveway or street in front of your house, if you land on your head, can result in death or permanent injury,” Brady says. He gives the example of a kid’s head striking the curb. “Without a helmet, that can be a life-threatening injury. With a helmet, it’s a scraped elbow.”

Taylor uses an egg and a Mason jar to simulate a brain injury to her students. She shakes the egg inside the Mason jar to show how it cracks upon impact, then gives kids the chance to build something to protect the egg.

Buying a Bike Helmet

Bike helmets don’t have to be expensive, Taylor says, but parents should look for Consumer Product Safety Commission approval on the packaging.

Follow these tips to ensure a good helmet fit:

  • Measure your child’s head with a tape measure before buying the helmet. Wrap the tape measure around the center of the head, about two inches above the eyebrow. It should be snug but not so tight it digs into the skin. Look for a bike helmet within the head size range. Most third-grade kids wear a size small or medium helmet, Taylor says.
  • The helmet should sit no more than two fingertips above the child’s eyebrow.
  • The straps of the helmet should form a V shape around the ears.
  • The helmet shouldn’t slide around on the head or fly back when bike-riding. If it does, it’s too loose.

Kids shouldn’t wear a helmet that’s been in an accident involving the head, even if there’s no visible damage to the helmet.

Bike Safety: Beyond Helmets

Don’t assume the helmet means you’re immune to injury. “People do need to be careful of not being lulled into a false sense of security,” Brady says. “It might protect your head, but it’s not going to protect the rest of your body.”

Taylor gives her third-graders these bike safety tips:

  • Wear sneakers or tennis shoes and socks, not open-toed shoes.
  • Double-knot shoelaces and tuck them inside the shoes.
  • Wear brightly colored clothes.
  • Stop at intersections, get off the bike and walk with the bike through the intersection.
  • Check your bike’s brakes and tires before riding.
  • Make sure the bike is the right size: Straddle the bike with your feet on the ground. There should be 1-3 inches between your crotch and the center bar where it extends past the handlebars.

Keeping Kids Safe from Bike Injuries

Do your kids like wearing their helmets, or do they say the same things my friends did? Leave a comment and tell us how you help them stay safe. 

Reply & View Comments Search Submit

Subscribe for Updates

Get stories & health tips every week