Sunday, September 21, 2008

Life Speaks Out On Bike Safety

On why old helmets are dangerous and why kids shouldn't wear headphones while biking:

Sometimes life speaks in such a coherent, insistent manner that I have no choice but to stop and listen. Life's latest speaking engagement commenced at the bleachers of the Princeton high school sports field, where I was sitting with my daughter, having a picnic while watching the girl's soccer team practice. This is not normal behavior, seeing as we know no one on the team, and had never visited the field before.

Two men were cleaning up after the football game earlier in the day. They took their thankless task with a sense of humor. I asked one of them about recycling--the lack there of being a pet peeve of mine. He assure me that they do, mostly, and also took note of the old bike helmet I had next to me. "You should get a new helmet," he said. I knew this, but he explained exactly why my procrastination was dangerous. The helmet had long since lost its plastic shell, which he said is very important since the plastic coating makes the helmet "slippery". Otherwise it catches on the pavement, increasing the risk of neck injury. He also said the padding inside becomes hardened over time, which reduces a helmet's ability to cushion impact. "Helmets really need to be replaced every five years," he said with a tone of voice that led me to believe him.

Having brought me an impromptu lecture on helmet safety, life gave its second, far more emphatic, speech several days later, on Franklin Street near TeeAr Place. I was riding my daughter home on the bike, with the same old helmet on, when we heard a loud thump--the sound of a student getting hit by a car just up the street. He was sixteen, riding home from the high school with headphones in his ears and no bike helmet. Riding on the sidewalk, he suddenly veered into the street, right in front of a car going the same direction. The car had no time to stop. The impact must have been substantial--the bike was totaled, the car's windshield was smashed--but the boy, though dazed, was soon able to stand up. The ambulance came quickly. They lay him down, braced his neck and took him to the hospital as a precaution. The next day, a friend of his said he was okay, though a Trenton Times article said the impact had fractured his skull.

My daughter likes the feel of wind in her hair, but maybe now she will complain less about the helmet, and I'll finally be able to corral memory, paper and pen to get that new helmet on the shopping list. When life speaks, it helps to listen, and not to have headphones on.

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