Dave Schlabowske
Bike Czar

Remember When Kids Didn’t Wear Helmets?

Four decades ago 50% of kids bicycled or walked to work. Today its 12%. Is our obsession with safety making kids fat?

By , Bike Federation of Wisconsin - Jan 30th, 2015 02:39 pm
Mothers have always loved their children, they just didn’t worry about them as much.

Mothers have always loved their children, they just didn’t worry about them as much.

When I was a kid, I rode my green 1969 Schwinn Pea Picker with a big sissy bar all over Milwaukee and West Allis with my friends. We never had a safety class other than what our dads taught us, and we didn’t even know there were helmets. We left in the morning and knew we had to be home for lunch or dinner. We all walked or biked to school, to the hobby shop, to the bakery, and to the corner store to get penny candy.Our parents really had no idea where we were or what we were doing.

Yes, the Thudguard is for real.

Yes, the Thudguard is for real.

I know our parents cared about our safety, but people just didn’t worry about things like bicycle crashes back then. We didn’t even wear seat belts in our cars. It was easy to get a job and everyone had great health insurance, so maybe we didn’t worry about much.

Today? I can’t believe the Thudguard Baby Safety Helmet is a real product and not some comedy skit from Saturday Night Live. It’s a sign of the times that parents are so afraid they think kids need helmets in the house.

Back in 1969, about 50 percent of kids walked or biked to school. Fast forward 45 years, and only about 12 percent get to school without a car or bus, even though it is actually a lot safer to ride a bicycle nowadays. We have more trails, bike lanes and even robust safe routes to school programs with great bicycle education, like the program we run.

Look at the trend in crashes since 1970.

Look at the trend in crashes since 1970.

But it isn’t just biking to school that has almost vanished in one generation. Kids today spend most of their time indoors on the computer, watching television,  or playing video games. About the only time kids go outside is for planned, supervised events like soccer practice. A child is six times more likely to play a video game on a typical day than to ride a bike, according to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the CDC.

The change can be seen in children’s bodies. In the 1960s, 4% of kids were overweight. Today, 16% are overweight, according to the CDC, and there is a very dangerous rise in childhood diabetes.

I’m really beginning to wonder what “progress” we have made since I was a kid. I’m not advocating to bring back Wham-O Style advertising or saying helmets are the cause of all this. But maybe we should worry less about risk and more about our preoccupation with risk, with our addiction to the myth of convenience and comfort, and to the fact that so much of our daily lives is spent sitting indoors looking at LED screens.

I certainly recognize the hypocrisy of writing this (as I work at my computer 10-12 hours a day) for you to read on your computer. I don’t have the answer, but maybe it will come to me on my ride to the office this morning.

This article was originally published by the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

Categories: Bike Czar

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