Health officials push for more helmet use among cyclists

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With spring in the air, more bicycle riders are taking to the streets.

Cycling is up 78 percent in the Twin Cities since 2007.  And Minnesota health officials are urging cyclists to take a helmet along when they hit the streets.

Wearing a well-fitting helmet reduces the risk of brain injury by a whopping 85 percent, according to the health department.

The Minnesota Department of Health says if every cyclist wore a helmet, it would prevent an estimated 500 bicycle-related fatalities and 151,000 nonfatal head injuries each year.

Officials say more education is needed to increase the number of Minnesota cyclists who wear helmets.

According to the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance, only about 8 percent of Minnesota’s bike riders wear a helmet consistently.

Still, that’s “far greater than most other places in the nation,” Mark Kinde, director of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Injury & Violence Prevention Program, told MinnPost.

State health statistics show there were 6,227 bicycle-related injuries in Minnesota in 2010. Those are injuries that were either treated in a hospital emergency room or required hospitalization. Nine cyclists were killed that year.

Despite increasing evidence of the dangers of biking without a helmet, most U.S. cities with bike-share programs don't require helmets and some have even repealed mandatory helmet use.

The reason, Huffington Post reports, is that helmet requirements tends to dampen the popularity of bike-share programs by taking the spontaneity out of the decision to just hop on a bike and go. The concern is that casual riders and tourists would balk at having to plan ahead to bring a helmet, or buy one on the fly.

And even in cities that do require helmets, compliance has been mixed.

Huffington Post reports, Melbourne, Australia's bike-share program requires riders to wear helmets, and although the city is flat and ideal for cycling, it achieves only 10 percent of the usage of comparable programs in London and Dublin, which don't require helmets.

Minnesota's program, Nice Ride, does not require helmets either. Instead, Nice Ride recommends that cyclists wear helmets voluntarily. The agency suggests stashing a helmet at work or in your locker to make it easier to remember.

Helmet or no, the key to bike safety, say health officials, is education for bikers and drivers alike. Here are some handy tips for safe cycling from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

  • Wear a Bicycle Helmet
  • Adjust Your Bicycle to Fit
  • See and Be Seen. Wear bright colors. Remember, just because you can see a driver doesn’t mean the driver can see you.
  • Watch for hazards such as potholes, broken glass, gravel, puddles, leaves, and dogs. All these hazards can cause a crash.
  • Avoid Riding at Night.

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