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Helmet Usage & Kids: would you play cop to a stranger's child?

Riding in town yesterday, I noticed a pair of youth riding up ahead in the bike lane.  There was a boy, younger, maybe under age 10, based on his size and the size of his bike.  He wore his helmet and pedaled pretty hard to keep up with his companion.

The other child was probably in middle school, based on the size of her bike.  Maybe they were siblings?  Maybe she was tasked with picking him up after school and riding home with him?  I don't know.  I was heading someplace and didn't stop to converse.

As I approached, I noticed that the elder child, certainly not older than 16 years old, had a shiny Nutcase in her front basket as she pedaled along in the bike lane.  I was surprised, and I was sad.

While there is no federal law that requires children to wear helmets on bikes (or scooters, skateboards or inline skates), 22 states and hundreds of localities have laws and ordinances mostly requiring all children under the age of 16 to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle or even as a passenger on a bicycle.

This info from the University of Michigan says that:

  • wearing a helmet while riding a bike reduces risk of death by over 50 percent
  • every 3 days, a child is killed in the US while riding a bike
  • about half of children riding a bike where no helmet laws exist never wear a helmet
  • helmet usage would prevent 40,000 head injuries and 50,000 scalp injuries in children, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Much of children's helmet usage might have to do with observing their own parents.  Some of these parents cannot afford a helmet (one of every two children of polled families earning less than $30,000 never wear a helmet).  Even though 78% of polled parents ride a bike, 27% of them never wear helmets.

Beyond parents, there is also the fashion statement.  My own daughter said that three of her friends, all of whom ride their bikes to school every day, asked their parents to drive them to school on picture day, to avoid "helmet hair".  As children get older, like this middle school-aged girl I saw pedaling ahead of me, they might become more and more conscious about wearing a helmet.  They aren't cool and they don't make for the best 'dos.

As I came closer, I said, "What about your helmet?"  I slowed a little bit to see what reaction I would get.  She looked sheepish as she pulled over and stopped.  I think she might have put her helmet on, but I couldn't stop to see.  

Maybe I shouldn't have said anything.  Or, maybe, since I did decide to do something, I should have pulled over and given the whole story on why helmet usage is important.  Like wearing our seatbelts, it's a no-brainer: it saves lives.  I don't know.  What would you have done?  Pedaled on? Stopped to chat?  Do you see youth, especially teens and pre-teens, not wearing helmets while they bike?


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Hmmm, I think keeping it just at that point is already veering into busybody land, let alone giving her a big, fat lecture (which she'll hear as "blah, blah, blahdy blah", anyway).

While both the hubby and I always wear our helmets and make our tween do so, as well---this would be a kid old enough to make an informed decision herself. Not to mention I know I biked without a helmet as a kid, as did previous generations.

I'm not anti-safety by any means, I just think your lecture would be ignored anyway----and then she'd text her friends to laugh about the nosy crazy lady who nagged at her.

I have instructed my kids that when busy body adults they do not know attempt to lecture or nag them they should politely ask them to please mind their own business and walk away. You do not really know the kid's age and if she was 16 then she was breaking no law and whether or not she offended your sensibilities is irrelevant.

@Z - even better point. I hadn't considered this is a stranger attempting to engage the most likely-to-be-stranger-abducted age and gender in a conversation.

The girl had a helmet in her basket which shows that her perents bought it and wanted her to wear it. Despite what her parents said she didn't wear it. What would my advice change here? Why would she listen to me if she didn't listen to her parents?
If I knew the parents, I may mention it to them but that's about all I would consider doing in this situation.

I think as long as it was light and not a lecture it is ok.
I do remember clearly the unknown adult that called me on littering when I was old enough to know better. It made me realize that I should be a good citizen, even if MY parents weren't around.
I am sure that the teen (or tween) knew very well that the helmet belongs on her head, and if she is open to taking the advice of a friendly stranger that is great. And it may change her behavior more then nagging from her parents.

@Z, I understand where you are coming from, but I don't think that it is polite for a child to say "mind your own business" to an adult. I am not saying that children should feel obligated to respond to every nagging adult they meet. Maybe something like "Sorry but I am not allowed to talk to strangers"?

@anon - Z did state she instructs them to say it politely. I'm sure it's a courteous, more diplomatic version of "butt out Mrs. Kravitz". And they are, after all, HER children (meaning she gets to instruct them however she pleases).

There are some kids on our street that are about 10 that ride around the street with no helmet and no shoes. I have yelled at them to go home and put them on. I can't stand it. Not to mention there are other things going on in that home and I don't think these kids should be left unattended. My daughter usually states a very audible "look mommy, that guy isn't wearing a helmet" whenever she sees someone without one. And I reply, "yes, he should be wearing a helmet, he could get very hurt if he falls off his bike," usually hoping our conversation gets overheard.

I would totally say something and have before (this was to a teen who had the helmet on, but the chin strap dangling). But definitely with a huge smile on my face and something along the lines of "Ok, I have to give you a hard time for not wearing your helmet... you actually have a cool helmet! How come you aren't wearing it?" Some attempt at making it conversational and light... not lecturing and busybody-like.

Why people are so afraid to talk to other people's kids is beyond me - I personally think our US society in general tends to go way overboard in the stranger danger dept, to the point of making our children fearful of any adult speaking to them, even casually in a bakery line with their parents standing right next them! When did being able to converse in a light, easygoing way become taboo? My children are still in the baby/toddler stages, but I am going to try so hard in the coming years to teach them the difference between friendly and polite interactions with adults and someone who may be out to hurt them (knowing at the same time that my children are more at risk of being harmed by someone they know than a complete stranger). My apologies for coming at this point strongly, but the cautions above about talking to another child/tween/teen as being perceived as "stranger danger" worthy seems so off-putting to me. Also, as a teenager, I remember the opposite to be true - I remember listening to other adult's opinions or advice over my parents, so perhaps hearing caution from a friendly stranger would not be ignored after all. Isn't it worth some effort? Yes, it may be in vain but it also may not be!

One a separate but similar note, it's becoming increasingly striking to me how little people/parents/strangers actually converse in a public place where they don't know anyone. I have definitely noticed a cold distance in several parents at a playground where they look at you weird for striking up a conversation with them, while your children play together not 6 ft away, even so far as physically moving away to the opposite side so avoid having to talk to you. When I have managed to get a nice conversation going that is equally enjoyed and felt there was a connection made, I've gone so far as to offer my cell/email with an invite to meet up sometime, but not ONE woman I've met has ever contacted me again. I've heard many sentiments that it's so hard to make friends sometimes as adults, but rarely have I seen the efforts made to actually make a new friend! If I work/stay at home, how else do I make a friend or find someone with common interests if I'm isolated from other groups of adults? I feel like my efforts to connect again after coffeshops/playgrounds/music class has not been successful. I've also done some craft classes locally hoping to make a new friend from taking a class together, also unsuccessfully. I'm so hopeful that my son is finally starting preschool this fall because maybe just maybe, we might be able to make some longer lasting family friends if only because there will be more facetime between parents at the various work day, picnics, pick-ups, etc.

I am normally leery of stepping into these conversations, but Copenhagenize the Planet had a piece addressing this very point recently:


@Jena - you do realize that a stranger seeking to abduct a child or teen would also be friendly and engage them in conversation, right? One of the most common ruses is ask for help looking for a lost puppy. But I suspect expressing faux concern could work really, really well, too.

BTW, I actually permit my daughter far MORE independence and freedom than the average PDX parent. I am also fully aware of the very low statistics of stranger abduction. Still doesn't make me any more comfortable about strangers telling my daughter what to do in my absence---even if it is with the best of intentions.

Not to mention, neither my daughter nor the kid in the posting would've responded as desired.

@Debby: your actions would be those of a responsible neighbor. I have no issue with people I even peripherally know telling me my daughter did something she shouldn't (ditto my kitty). Totally different situation.

There's really not much chance for a conversation while the kid is biking by, right? I do think a simple "don't forget your helmet!" would be great, though. I would hope someone would say something if it were my daughter, and if I ever catch her riding without her helmet, her bike is going away for quite a while.

Do you also stop adult bike riders who are not wearing helmets and give them a reminder....or only kids?

I actually think the OP's response is totally appropriate. It shows concern, is respectful and kind, isn't lecture-y, is concise and to-the-point.

I actually usually appreciate concerned adults making helpful comments to my children to help guide them. I think children need to see a variety of adult perspectives on issues. I generally find it quite helpful for another parent on the playground to say something to my kid about his or her actions, as long as it is respectful and kind.

And Jena M, I hear your pain. I often notice how people keep to themselves at the playground, even when their kids are actively playing together. And, when I try to engage the other adult in conversation, I get a weird look. I'm thinking, at the neighborhood playground, it's highly likely that our kids will end up going to school together. Why not connect a little?

But many people seem shy, uninterested, or just engrossed in their smartphones.

Jena M, you sound like someone I would want to be friends with! I hope I meet you on the playground someday.

Kids do tend to listen to people who aren't their parents, so maybe a friendly and gentle reminder could actually help in this (and many other cases). Probably because people don't often speak to each other a lot in public, kids are jarred by it too, and tend to listen when told something by a caring stranger.

My 16 year old boards and until recently, with no helmet. Of course we, his parents, tried to insist. It took 12 stitches and a team of docs fussing at him and over his to change his mind about helmets being "uncool".

If I know the kid, even peripherally, I will totally chime in with a "where's your helmet?" or "your helmet only works if it's on your head!" If I can, I'll add something like "you have a great brain and I would hate to see something happen to it."

Like an earlier commenter, I think based on my own memories of childhood, that sometimes these things are more powerful coming from other adults instead of our own parents. After all, there are a lot of emotions tied into anything your parents tell you, and the need to separate from your parents can lead you to reject what they want you to do.

With a child or a teen who is a complete stranger to me? I very rarely say anything because it's hard to convey concern rather than criticism, and besides, I don't know if that kid even has a helmet at home. In the OP's situation, where she can see the helmet and she's able to speak instead of yell? I hope I would have said something, too.

For teaching kids about stranger-danger, isn't it possible with all but the toddler-age-group to bring in a bit of nuance? That there's a difference between "Good morning" or "Woah, watch out for that car!" or "Man, this line is slow" and "Hey, wanna come look for a puppy with me?" Teach your kids to be wary of someone who lures them away from a familiar setting or person and to know what their boundaries are and watch for transgressions, but for heaven's sake, there's not a boogeyman around every corner.

I would have done the same thing as the OP, and if it were my child without a helmet, I hope someone would speak up. I've come up on 2 separate crashes involving kids without helmets and the end result was devastating. As an adult, I feel a certain amount of responsibility for keeping the children in my village safe. If the children choose to say things like "mind your own business", so be it, at least I know that I made a conscious effort to be a caring adult.

j from 1:50, this is j from 2:08. I didn't see your post before posting mine. I'll go as j.0 from here on out ;)

Oh, just noticed that! We j's should stick together!

I'm on board with Jena M. Especially (assuming) this poster is a woman. The "stranger danger" thing may be a bit over done. When I was young, my mother taught me that if I ever got lost (back when kids could go about the neighborhood), to always seek out an adult woman, preferrably one with children, to ask for help. Also, knowing how I was as a tweenager, I think I might have been embarrassed/impressed enough to listen to another biker female tell me to wear a helmet. Sometimes it's those not connected with our daily lives that make us remember, and think, about our actions.

Wanna hang out Jena M? I've got a 3 year old and we love play dates! Lol.

Good comments, everyone. Great post.

I know we are talking about bike helmets, but I have worked in the snow sports industry for many years and my husband is on ski patrol at mt hood. We have both seen firsthand the awful aftermath of someone not wearing a helmet. The good news is that now it is rare to see a child or even a teen without a helmet on the slopes up on Hood (their parents also wearing one is an entirely different matter).

I credit the snow sports helmet companies (I do not work for one) for making the helmets very cool and appealing to tweens and teens. I just don't see the same for bike helmets. They often have goofy graphics or are really plain and boring. Not saying it is the bike companies' faults for teenagers not wearing helmets, but I think they could do a better job in making them more appealing for this age group.

And, I think we need more citizenship - in a nice way. It is not busy body. All of you are invited to call my girls out (again, nicely, please) if they aren't being respectful of themselves or others.

I think the OP did the right thing in speaking up and asking the question. I teach tweens/teenagers and while they may not always *appear* to be listening, they do hear you and perhaps that small thing could save a life somewhere down the road. Also, I have to say that I am amazed at how often I see adults/parents with kids (either on the same bike or kids riding their own with the adults/parents) in Portland riding on REALLY nice bikes (so likely economics is not the issue), but not wearing helmets. I can understand if a helmet is perhaps forgotten on a given day and the parent chooses to give his/her helmet to the child instead, but I wonder what kind of message this sends to the kids if this is not the case that day. You have to wear a helmet for safety, but adults don't? Hmmmmm....

an addendum to my above post...

I wanted to add that I also frequently bike with my kids, but if I forget my helmet I don't get to ride (I have to walk my bike)-this is a non-negotiable in our family, no helmet-no riding. :)

I have said things, politely, to other kids before, and I hope that if my kids are doing something dangerous or stupid another adult will give them a firm but polite message. I agree with others that it takes a village, and kids will often pay attention to other adults more than their own parents.

I assume you were an adult yelling at a kid on a bike from a car. I have been an adult on a bike being yelled at by someone from a car, and it always seems like such a polarizing, power-imbalanced situation. I don't ride around yelling at people to put their seatbelts on. Moreover, I find it distracting and dangerous when people try to engage me verbally from their moving vehicles while I am doing my best on my bike to stay away from cars! Is it really so easy to drive a car safely that you need to be monitoring other people's gear choices - and slowing down and craning your neck to do so - instead of protecting yourself and others by being alert and cautious behind the wheel? If she were me, I'd have said, "What about your driving?!"

It's funny how all the helpful helmet advice is always being yelled from behind the wheel of a CAR. A car, which is the instrument that hurts children. A car, the driving of which teaches the driver nothing about bicycling as far as I can recall. A car, whose driver, if she wants to make the streets safer, should at that moment be FOCUSING ON THE ROAD, or better, NOT DRIVING A CAR.

The risks of riding a bike, itself, are negligible... until you add cars to the mix, then they go up by one or two orders of magnitude. If every driver switched to a bike, the girl could ride around her whole life without fear of a head injury. An important distinction, for purposes of illustrating the blithe and unexamined hypocrisy on display here.

Too harsh? Imagine sitting on a chair on your front lawn, and a guy comes running by with a cheeseburger in one hand, maybe he's talking on a hands-free cell phone/Bluetooth/whatnot, and hey, what the heck, let's make him drunk too. OK he's drunk too. And in the other hand... obviously I'm saving the best for last here... In the other hand is a loaded .45 pistol, with the safety off, and he's waving it around. Maybe he's using it to gesture with in his conversation. He sees you sitting there, is surprised and also, for some reason, saddened, so as he's waving the gun in your general direction, he yells "What about your bullet-proof vest?"

devon and the indignant Roland J. Couture- sweet jebus. Read the VERY first line of the OP! "Riding in town yesterday, I noticed a pair of youth riding up ahead in the bike lane." I'm guessing the OP wasn't riding a car.

Good for you for stepping in and doing what instinctively you know her parent would have had her mother or father seen her riding with the helmet in the basket. I don't understand why there is so much backlash against reminding this girl who had a helmet available, to wear it! And how silly to ask if you would do the same if she were an adult. Adults make their own choices and sometimes pay the consequences. Children are still learning to make good choices (which is why they have parents/guardians) and reminding her to make the right choice here was the best thing you could have done.

j.0 @ 1:04 - Very well then, carry on.

It's interesting to me how so many people here seem forgiving of parents' widespread inability to raise obedient children. Are kids really being raised to be so disobedient of their parents' wishes? Maybe this is a bigger/different problem than a kid refusing to wear her helmet--maybe people need to take parenting classes to learn how to keep their kids safe when they (the parents) are not around to keep an eye out.

Note: I also pictured this "reprimand" to be from a car for whatever reason, and quite frankly, it seems very unsafe to suddenly start a conversation (whether from a car OR a bike) with another cyclist who is moving slower than you en route, especially a younger, inexperienced cyclist. Don't do that with MY child, ESPECIALLY if she's not wearing a helmet, please.

Okay, going off topic in my reply, but here goes:

Ummm, actually most parenting classes don't really focus too heavily on "obedience", because it's a rather 1950's concept---or one more commonly associated with training animals, not raising children.

Yes, I think children should be raised to respect their parents and accept their decisions---but I don't believe in unwavering fealty, I believe in discussing the reasons for these things with my daughter.

Much "disobedience" is more about curiosity or the rather normal child tendency/human nature to push boundaries. EVen the best behaved of children will resist doing what they don't like to do (like wearing a bike helmet) when thier parents aren't around. Actually plenty of adults are like this in the workplace. It's why there are supervisors.

While I certainly want my daughter to wear her helmet, I don't object to her questioning things (including authority) as "disobedience" was a founding principal of our nation and has freed many people from slavery.

ARe you even a parent, because seriously, dealing with kids ignoring you and breaking rules is a HUGE part of parenting.

Yes, I'm a parent in a blended family. We probably have an exceptional child, as she never questions or resists the idea of wearing a bike helmet with us, and is not concerned about her hair. Perhaps this is merely good modeling on my part, but I suspect she just feels it makes sense to protect her head after we explained the law, risks, etc. To her, it is not about whether she "likes it" or not; rather, she has chosen to "like" it because of her understanding of what it means for her. Do kids really "like" homework? Not always, but when we spend time helping kids make choices about homework, or helmets, brilliant and amazing things can happen.

However, let's say she was riding along without her helmet on, without us around one day. I feel very strongly that I would not want another person distracting her to tell her to wear a helmet while she's in motion. It could actually cause her to have an accident, and she may have a good--albeit unapparent--reason for not having the helmet on (maybe a strap broke, for example).

I believe that a majority of children really can be trusted to do what's best for themselves if they are able, but they are often not given that chance. Maybe those kids who are doing the ignoring have only had things defined to them as "rules" rather than having reasons for things explained. Kids are pretty smart and interested in learning "why" things are. As you said, they are curious. If they're doing something against their parents' instruction, maybe they need their parent to spend more time explaining to them the "why" of the "rule," satisfying their curiosity.

Ultimately, Zumpie, I think you may be having a semantical issue with the word "obedience." What I mean by "obedient" is a child who listens to and trusts that their parents are giving them good advice, and thus they follow it (for the most part). We have treated our child "like an adult" in the sense that we explain our reasoning to her and she knows she is free to choose her own way. Because of this, she trusts what we have to say. Good and great supervisors treat employees in that way as well, and it makes their jobs much easier. Best to you in your parenting journey.

I think a casual comment as you ride by is fine. I agree with other posters that tweens might listen to another adult figure, even if they've already heard it from their parents. My 12-year-old hardly seems to listen to me, so I'm always glad for reinforcement from other adult figures.

Wow. How ignorant to say "If every driver switched to a bike, the girl could ride around her whole life without fear of a head injury." At 17 I went over the handle bars of my bike on a bike path at Black Butte Ranch with no cars on the road next to the separate path. I was not wearing a helmet (in those days I didn't know anyone who did wear a helmet for casual bike riding) and ended up with a subdural hematoma, fractured skull, broken bones in my ear, memory loss, and a hearing deficit. The week after my accident, a doctor at St. Vincent's Hospital went over the handlebars on his bike, no car involved, and died. He wasn't wearing a helmet either. These types of accidents do happen and they can be deadly. Wearing a helmet saves lives and is a realistic way of cutting back on injuries. Reminding anyone in a polite, non-confrontational way to wear one is acceptable and to be encouraged in my (not unbiased) view. Blaming cars for all bike related head injuries is just plain moronic.

Agreed, Allison. When someone I know tells me about a bicycling injury, for some reason I always immediately jump to imagining a car-bike conflict. But it's always turned out to be something related to the road or weather, not a car. Not that car-bike doesn't happen, but among the people I know, the solo accident is pretty common.

My only biking accident was with another bike, and I have almost crashed due to other bikers not paying attention too many times to count (I don't take the Hawthorne Bridge any more because of all the speed-freak passing bikers).

We're trying to raise children in a community - the community should be able to give a bit of friendly advice. I myself freely talk to other people's kids in restaurants, parks, etc. and remind them to pick up litter, wear their helmets, not to yell on the bus, etc. as well as to praise them for being polite, etc.

It's silly to think that you shouldn't talk to other people's kids. Just keep it friendly. Or if is called for - less friendly. It's good for kids to know that there are other adults besides their parents who are looking out for them and keeping them accountable.

Yesterday I saw 2 little girls playing on their bikes, one with training wheels, one not. The one without was wearing a helmet and the other was not. As my daughter and I rode by (in helmets) I commented to the training wheel girl, "Oh, you don't have a helmet?" The girls promptly put their bikes down, went inside, and they both came out with helmets. As we rode back, I complimented them on the cuteness of their helmets and they beamed.

About 20 minutes later, we rode by again, and the monster kids from across the street were out again without helmets and shoes, and the little training wheel girl was back to no helmet. I could have strangled those kids! But you know, I don't blame them. Maybe if they were supervised, things would be different. But those tiny little girls...I wonder if one of those kids told her she didn't need to wear the helmet.

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