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Know your helmets -- and the law

By TERESA M. SLATTERY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


Did you know there is a difference between a bicycle helmet and a scooter helmet? Did you know that head injuries from scooters are catching up with those from in-line skates?

The Consumer Product Safety Council and National Safe Kids have designated this week March 12-18 as national "Use Your Head to Protect Your Brain" week.

According to the CPSC, more than 900 people die every year and about 567,000 go to emergency rooms from bicycle injuries alone. Only half of all bicyclists wear their helmets. Statistics on scooter injuries are harder to measure because high-speed scooters are a fairly new product. But they are being reported widely, and I heard one story about an emergency room that ran out of plaster for casts after the winter holidays.

You need to practice safety when riding today's scooters, and a good place to start is with your helmet.

Scooter helmets are, again, different from bicycle helmets. Bicycle helmets are sleek and aerodynamic while scooter helmets resemble Army helmets -- almost square and longer in the back. This is because when a scooter rider takes a fall, he usually falls backwards.

A good way to make sure your safety gear is appropriate to the sport is to read the recommendations that come with your helmet, either printed in the instruction booklet or on the helmet itself.

Different helmets must conform to CPSC guidelines for each contact sport, and there are even different helmets designed for different types of scooters. The motorized scooter or go-ped requires a different helmet than the pedi-scooter because it travels at speeds between 15 and 30 mph. Manufacturers of some motorized scooters recommend motorcycle or BMX helmets because they have a harder outside shell than the lightweight plastic pedi-scooter helmets.

I called several companies including Bell, a maker of bicycle helmets to find out if a specific helmet was recommended for motorized scooters. A consumer care specialist from Bell said there is no specified helmet yet because helmets are not required for motorized scooters. Asked if he would recommend one, he suggested at the minimum "an open-faced three-quarter helmet" like motorcyclists or football players wear.

Bicycle helmets are required in Florida for any cyclist under 16, but no such law exists for scooter riders. Last month I taught bicycle safety classes to second graders in 10 of the county's elementary schools. When I asked how many children owned scooters, a lot of hands shot up. When I asked how many wore helmets when they rode their scooters, the number was not as great. I find similar results when I ask a class about bicycle helmets.

At Schwarzkopf Elementary, second grade teacher Lisa Dunn said that after the holiday break her children came back with all kinds of casts, crutches, sprains, cuts and bruises from scooter accidents. "These are completely different animals than we were young," said second grade teacher Pat Ithier.

Nothing against scooters, but if they are not ridden in the proper place with the proper safety equipment, someone can get hurt.

In Spring Hill, a 12-year-old died and his twin brother was seriously injured when they were riding their scooters and were hit by a car. Just before Christmas, a 13-year-old was killed on Tampa's Armenia Avenue when he lost control of the motorized scooter he was borrowing from a friend.

So what is the age minimum for motorized scooters?

There is no clear answer. Different manufacturers recommend various ages depending on the speed of the motor; the CPSC, and Department of Highway Safety and Department of Transportation are equally vague on this point. Maybe one of my alert readers can answer this question.

And that's not the only ambiguity when it comes to motorized scooters.

Florida statutes consider these scooters a motor vehicle, and no motor vehicle can be driven on a sidewalk. But, because the law prohibits registering these scooters as motor vehicles, they also are not supposed to be driven on the streets.

So just where can you drive them? The safest bet is your own backyard, and parents might want to consider that point before they buy one.

Even pedi-scooters are not recommended for children under 8 unless an adult is present.

According to National Safe Kids, more than 85 percent of scooter injuries that require emergency room treatment involve children under 14 and one-third affect children under 8. Safe Kids warns: "Parents may have a false sense of security when it comes to their kids and scooters. Because these scooters have handlebars, brakes and are low to the ground, adults may feel their children can easily control them. Falls are still common, and without the appropriate safety gear, children can sustain severe injury, including head trauma."

Scooters, on the market since 1999, are new versions of foot-propelled scooters popular in the 50s. They are made of lightweight metal such as aluminum and have small low-friction wheels similar to those on in-line skates. They usually cost between $50 and $120 and weigh less than 10 pounds. They can also be folded for easy portability.

The CPSC also reports that 29 percent of scooter injuries result in fractures and dislocations mostly to the arms and hands. Protective gear can cost less than $35. CPSC estimates more than 60 percent of injuries could be prevented or reduced in severity if protective gear had been worn.

Some of the scooter helmets I found at the Wal-Mart Superstore in New Tampa were the Extreme Multi-Sport Helmet recommended for bicycling, skating and skateboarding, priced at $24.84; and the X-Games helmet recommended for snowboarding and in-line skating for $19.88, including knee and elbow pads. Bicycle helmets ranged from $7.96 to $24.84 with aggressive-type bicycle helmets priced at $24.84.

All this equipment is much cheaper than an emergency room visit any day. Remember that most scooter helmets are interchangeable and can be worn while riding bicycles, but bicycle helmets are designed specifically for bicycles and not scooters. Replace your helmet every three years, as Bell recommends; and replace it right away if you ever take a significant fall.

Scooter safety tips

National Safe Kids and the Child Advocacy Department at St. Joseph's Hospital recommend these guidelines for scooter safety:

1. Children should wear appropriate safety gear, including a helmet (meeting CPSC standards), elbow and knee pads, and proper footwear.

2.Protective gear should fit properly and not hinder the rider's movement, vision or hearing. Some wrist guards may interfere with the ability to steer the scooter and are not recommended.

3. Children 8 and under should not use scooters without close adult supervision. This supervision includes evaluating the child's balancing and coordination skills.

4. Before use, a scooter should be thoroughly checked for hazards such as loose, broken or cracked parts; sharp edges on metal boards; slippery top surfaces; and wheels with nicks and cracks.

5. Scooters should be ridden on smooth, paved surfaces free from traffic and groups of people. Avoid riding on the streets or surfaces with water, sand, gravel or dirt.

6. Do not ride scooters at night.

7. Never hitch a ride from a car, bus, truck or bicycle, and limit usage of the scooter to one person at a time.

8. Be especially careful when riding downhill. On a steep hill, step off the scooter and walk to the bottom of the hill.

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