Teens, Tweens Use Noggins At Bike Helmet Focus Group
By the time they reach LFHS, only 6 percent wear one.
Anticipation filled the air as 27 teens and tweens scrunched together, craned their necks and stood on chairs in the front room of Lake Bluff's Noodle Bar to witness Dr. Carola Tanna's experiment.
On the count of three, two boys standing on chairs dropped what they were holding – one, a honeydew melon wrapped in a plastic bag; the other, a plastic-wrapped melon strapped into a bicycle helmet.
The kids – age 11 to 18 – gasped in unison as the melons hit the floor with a thud.Dr. Tanna, an internist at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, examined the melons and assessed their conditions. The helmeted melon escaped unscathed, while the un-helmeted fruit sustained significant internal injuries.
The experiment was one highlight of a teen focus group conducted by Dr. Deborah Gulson and the Community Bicycle Helmet Initiative Committee she organized. The committee is comprised of physicians, marketing professionals, teachers, bicycling experts and concerned parents.
What the Data Shows
Gulson, an avid cyclist and chair of pediatrics at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, began the initiative after collecting data at local schools that showed bike helmet use drops off dramatically in high school.
"Helmet use declines in middle school and further declines in high school," Gulson said. "Essentially, the highest risk group [for fatalities] wears helmets the least."
The statistics are compelling: National bicycle injury data for 2009 indicates 80 percent of the bicycle fatalities on U.S. roads involve bicyclists over the age of 12. Dr. Gulson said 75 percent of the 630 deaths that occurred in 2009 could have been prevented with helmet use.
Locally, the figures are equally disturbing. Gulson and the Bicycle Helmet Committee conducted a study of bike helmet use among bike riders at four local schools: Lake Bluff Elementary School (LBES); Deerpath Middle School (DMS); Lake Bluff Middle School (LBMS) and Lake Forest High School (LFHS).
The study showed while 86 percent of bike riders at LBES and 75 percent of riders at DMS wore helmets, only 51 percent of bikers at LBMS sported helmets. At LFHS, a dismal 6 percent of bicycle riders wore protective head gear.
Interestingly, only 30 percent of parents at all school locations wore helmets.
'Not Cool to Wear One'
To begin the information gathering session, the young participants filled out confidential surveys assessing whether they – and their parents – wear bike helmets while riding; how friends' helmet wearing impacts their own, and whether schools require them to wear bike helmets.
Kids were encouraged to give honest and straightforward answers and feedback. "What happens in the Noodle Bar stays in the Noodle Bar," said Phil Gayter, forum moderator and creative director at Brainwave, Inc., a Chicago advertising agency.
Having broken the ice, Gayter got right down to business. "Why don't kids wear bike helmets?" he queried the group.
The kids shouted out a variety of answers from, "They think it's cool not to," and "They don't think anything will happen," to "It's impossible to put a pony tail in your helmet," and "Cuz it has a Power Rangers band on it."
One teenage girl offered, "When you don't really bike that far, you don't really need one."When the teens and tweens were asked how many of them wore bike helmets when they first started riding, the answer was unanimous – everyone wore a helmet.
The participants conceded, though, they stopped sporting helmets either in middle school or high school.
"So, why did you stop?" Gayter inquired.
The kids provided a number of explanations: "That's when you want to fit in and be cool," said a pre-teen boy.A high schooler said, "By the end of eighth grade, no one had a helmet. There was a lot of pressure to not wear one." Another stated, "There's a point at which you don't listen to your mom and dad about wearing a helmet anymore."
Parents Play Big Role
Parents play a significant role in whether or not their children put on a bike helmet. Focus group participants – most of whom stated they do wear helmets – said their parents would get very angry if they didn't wear it. Nearly everyone said helmet wearing was not an option, but a necessity.
One pre-teen shared, "My dad is a lawyer and he always tells me these morbid things about people getting into accidents without helmets."Half of the youngsters admitted, though, they don't have a helmet that fits them well.
And the parents of helmet-wearing children teach by example – they wear bicycle helmets themselves, according to the focus group.
Somewhat surprisingly, the youngsters all agreed that wearing a helmet to participate in sports is cool and they let Gayter know why: "You don't have to worry about hurting your head," a tween girl commented. "You have to wear the helmet in sports. It's part of your uniform," said a teenage boy.
A girl in high school explained, "Professional cyclists are going so fast, they need a helmet. Just biking to your friend's house is different. You think, why do I need to wear this?"
Nick Christafalos, owner of Activator Cycles in Lake Bluff, shared his personal biking experiences with the crowd.
"Back in the 70s, we didn't have bike helmets and I got a lot of stitches growing up," he explained. "When I started wearing helmets, I found I didn't get injured as much, and now I don't even think about it. I always wear a helmet."
The kids' eyes opened wide as Christafalos opened a large duffel bag and began passing around brightly colored and intricately designed bike helmets. Girls chattered excitedly about a helmet resembling a watermelon; one painted gold and covered with sparkles; and another bright yellow helmet bearing the familiar smiley face.
The boys scrambled to try on a black eight-ball helmet; a very realistic shark's head covering; and, the favorite, a helmet featuring a fairly accurate illustration of a human brain.
One boy commented, "This helmet is very comfortable. It's like…tempurpedic!"
What Can Be Done
As the session wound down, moderators prompted the kids to share ideas on how best to market helmet use to kids. The participants offered many insightful ideas, including posting fatality statistics by bike racks; seeking celebrity endorsements; even a "wear a helmet, win a prize" sweepstakes.
The youth also strongly endorsed the idea of educating parents and schools about the importance of helmet use; though the group was divided as to whether bike helmets should be required by law.
"Yeah, it would be a lot easier to wear a helmet if it were a law. Then, everyone would have to," said one boy. A teen girl countered, "Just getting teens to ride bikes is already an issue. A helmet law would further reduce teen bike riding."
Following the focus group, Gulson said she was pleased with the results.
"There was great diversity and enthusiasm in this group," she remarked. "We uncovered some interesting information."
Gulson said she was amazed at the effect the statistics had on the forum participants. "Clearly, the teens didn't know the data and I think they were surprised at what they saw," she said. "We were surprised that the kids said the statistics spoke to them."
Gulson said the information gathered in the focus group meeting will form the foundation for interventions aimed at increasing the number of kids who wear bike helmets. Gulson hopes to roll out a series of initiatives beginning in the spring of 2011.
Newcomers to the Community Bicycle Helmet Initiative Committee are welcome. Interested parties can contact Dr. Gulson at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.