"Nerd." "Geek." "Dork." "Dweeb."
Ask the kids riding bicycles around Baltimore without a helmet why they're testing their luck and they're bound to say that strapping one on makes them feel like one of the above.
Despite the well-known and well-tested safety benefits of helmets, only 15 percent of children wear a bike helmet, according to Consumer Product Safety Commission reports.
Most kids who refuse to wear helmets do so because they think helmets are uncool. These image-conscious kids most likely learned to ride bare-headed and are reluctant to compromise image for safety. Other kids own and wear their helmets to appease their parents, only to sneakily snap them off when out of sight.
However, the cool dudes and the police are now of a mind to "turn kids on" to bike helmets. As of Oct. 1, youngsters used to riding around with the wind in their hair will no longer legally enjoy the choice between fashion and safety. On that day, a Maryland law goes into effect requiring bicyclists under the age of 16 to wear a helmet or risk being pulled over and issued a warning by police.
Youngsters can learn from bike messengers. Those arbiters of cool street fashion and symbols of urban freedom can most often be seen wearing helmets these days. Like anything else they don, messengers' helmets have a personalized appeal: some are hand-painted (rasta colors and flames are popular), others have a tough, war-torn look that says, "I've taken thousands of ugly tumbles, and still I ride."
If your child owns a bike but no helmet, or if you've grown tired of nagging your kids to wear the helmets they do have, consider the statistics, which serve as a grim reminder of how important helmets can be: Each year, bike accidents kill about 300 children in the United States and send more than 400,000 children to emergency rooms, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Children between the ages of 5 and 14 have the highest injury rates of all bike riders, and bicycle accidents are among the leading causes of death for this age group.
The CPSC estimates that if all cyclists simply wore helmets, the risk of injuries or death would be reduced by 85 percent.
"What's so frustrating about most of these injuries is that they're preventable," says Bonnie McClun of the League of American Bicyclists in Baltimore. "Turning kids on to helmets and making sure that the helmets are properly worn at all times is the best thing parents can do for their children."
Increased awareness of helmet safety prompted an unprecedented demand for helmets, and bicycle companies have been working overtime to come up with a range of designs kids actually like.
"Over the last couple of years, we've been pretty successful at turning the stigma around," says Carol Easton of the California-based bicycle company Giro Sport and Design. "We've really managed to make our helmets fun to wear."
To find out what's hot in helmets, Giro Sport goes right to the source: they ask kids. The company also keeps track of the cartoons, video games and movies that make a splash in the kid's market.
This year, Giro Sport is featuring four different styles of children's helmets, including one in the shape of a baseball hat called the "Fat Hat" and one with a removable visor to protect eyes from wind and debris. These different styles come in a multitude of colors and designs.
"Today, parents are telling us that their kids love our helmets so much that they won't take them off -- that they're actually eating breakfast and climbing trees in them," boasts Ms. Easton.
If your child doesn't own a helmet, or if your child has a helmet but you've never, ever seen it worn happily to the breakfast table, it's probably time to go shopping.
In the Baltimore area, several bicycle stores carry good selections of children's helmets. Princeton Sports & Travel, in both Baltimore and Columbia, carries a large selection as does Horizon Cycles Inc. in Perry Hall, Baltimore and Hunt Valley.
"We've got a bunch of helmets for kids," says Marty Artes of Horizon Cycles. "Kids can choose from all sorts of helmet colors. Some with visors, some with stickers or crazy cartoonish graphics. For older kids, the more aggressive look is in, and we've got helmets for them, too."
Mr. Artes says there are three important considerations when choosing children's helmets: safety, fit and the less tangible -- and highly subjective -- "cool factor."
"Parents need to know that there are certain levels and standards for bicycle helmets," says Mr. Artes.
The best helmets feature stickers by Snell, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), or the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), which guarantee the helmets have met rigorous safety standards.
There is no way to bargain shop for helmets, he says. "Parents need to be willing to spend the extra $10 or $15 for a really good helmet that fits the child's head properly. It's a small investment that could become invaluable someday."
Helmets at Horizon Cycles start at about $30.
And then there's fashion to consider. "When a kid comes into the store and falls in love with a good helmet, parents should buy it. If it makes a kid feel cool, that's a guarantee it'll get worn."
Mike Andrews works for City Express Courier Service in Laurel. Like white sneakers, he says, a clean, scratch-free helmet is not cool.
"You want to look like you've been doing some serious riding. You want gashes and scratches, like you've been through some kind of battle. It's very 'Apocalypse Now.' "
(His insider tip to a quick and painless way to a worn-in helmet: "Just throw the helmet on the ground a bunch of times.")
Mr. Andrews doesn't mince words when it comes to bare-headed bike messengers: "They're organ donors," he says. "Any helmet is cooler than not wearing one."
Baltimore's Majic Messagers is the only courier service in Baltimore that requires messengers to wear helmets. "It's the Majic look," says Diedre Marlow, who runs the service.
Majic's messengers can be seen around Baltimore sporting the same aggressive look as City Express.
"The banged-up look is definitely in," says Ms. Marlow. "Most messengers make an effort to personalize their helmets."
You wear it well
Even if your kids finally do get helmets they consider cool, and even if these helmets are voluntarily worn with every ride, you've still got some work to do. Because helmets need to be worn just right.
This fall, Baltimore's League of American Bicyclists is focusing its education campaign on the importance of wearing helmets correctly.
"It's not enough just to have a helmet on your head. We meet so many people wearing helmets the wrong way who defend themselves by saying, 'Well, at least I'm wearing one,' or, 'It's better than nothing.' But helmets only protect your head if they're worn the right way," says Ms. McClun.
To wear a helmet correctly, she says, it should fit snugly and be worn level on the head, not tilted back or sideways. Pads and straps should be adjusted for a custom fit.
Check the fit by moving your head up and down and from side to side -- the helmet should sit firmly in place.
A helmet that meets safety standards worn properly every time you and your child ride a bike is the best way to prevent serious injury.
But what's even better, says Ms. McClun, is preventing an accident altogether by riding safely and cautiously.
Horizon Cycles Inc.: Baltimore: 6307 York Road, (410) 433-0241; Perry Hall: 4132 E. Joppa Road, No. 108, (410) 529-0030; Hunt Valley: 9801 York Road, (410) 667-1513. Hours 10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Baltimore store closed Sundays.
Princeton Sports & Travel: Baltimore: 6239 Falls Road, (410) 828-1127; Columbia: 10730 Little Patuxent Parkway, (410) 995-1894. Stores open Monday-Thursday 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.. Closed Sundays.