A new study by a team led by a University of Michigan Health System paediatric surgeon, and which appears in the current issue of Injury Control and Safety Promotion, shows that parents think their kids are wearing bicycle helmets when cycling more often than they actually are. And, surprise, surprise, the children of adult cyclists who wear helmets are more likely to wear helmets.

Parents overestimate their children’s helmet habit

In a survey of 731 fourth and fifth grade pupils and 329 of their parents, researchers found that while 70 percent of parents say their childen always wear bicycle helmets while riding, only 51 percent of children report doing so. One-fifth of the children said they never wear helmets, while only 4 percent of parents said their children never use helmets.

“This study shows the need to target injury prevention programs to parents and children together. We can’t rely solely on parental reports of children’s safety behaviors. Injury prevention must be treated as a family issue,” said Peter Erlich, M.D., M.H.S., a paediatric surgeon at UMHS.

Ehrlich, clinical associate professor in the Department of Surgery at U-M Medical School, conducted the study while at the Children’s Hospital of West Virginia.

Traumatic injuries are the leading cause of death in children, says Ehrlich’s report. Motor vehicle crashes account for more than half of all injuries and traumatic deaths in children. Bicycle-related accidents account for about 10 percent of injuries and deaths.

Ehrlich’s research team surveyed children from eight West Virginia elementary schools and sent home questionnaires for the children’s parents to return by mail. Surveys were coded so that the child’s and parent’s responses could be matched.

The answers collected from the children was consistent with US data on bicycle helmet use, suggesting their answers are closer to reality than the parents’ answers.

In addition to the discrepancies reported by parents and children, the study also found a strong correlation between parental behaviour and the child’s behaviour. Among the matched parent-child responses, 15 percent of the children said they never use a bicycle helmet – and 88 percent of those children’s parents also report never wearing a helmet. Further, children who said they ride their bikes with their parents were more likely to report helmet use than children who do not ride with their parents, 70 percent compared to 40 percent.

“The time-tested mantra that ‘actions speak louder than words’ clearly held true in our study. This suggests the need for injury prevention programs to stress the importance of parental role models,” said Ehrlich.

Some children said they refused to wear bicycle helmets. Of the 13 percent of kids who did not use helmets, the most common reason was they thought they were too experienced to need one. Other reasons were that helmets were uncomfortable or uncool.

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