Is a Helmet a Helmet If It's Not Buckled, or Is It Just a Hat?
Walking with my first-grader to and from school each day, I see lots of other kids of all ages riding scooters, skateboards, and bicycles. My son occasionally rides the scooter he got for his birthday, and, of course, always wears his helmet when he does so. The other skateboarders, scooter-riders, and bicyclists also wear helmets, per state law. (In California, all children under 18 must wear a helmet when riding a bicycle, scooter, or skateboard, as of 2003.) However, I've noticed a disturbing trend: The older (fourth and fifth grade?) skateboarders, especially, will put their helmets on their heads but not buckle the chin strap.
Now, it should seem obvious to the average adult, and hopefully to the average 10-year-old, that wearing a helmet that isn't fastened to your head isn't going to do a whole lot of good in protecting your brains should you take a spill on your skateboard. I wonder, if these kids' parents knew that they were skateboarding, scootering, or bicycling with their helmets' chin straps dangling uselessly, would they be concerned? I would be. In fact, it occurred to me to double-check the proper way to fit a helmet so that I can teach my kids to use one correctly. I'm not much of a bicyclist (I haven't ridden in, oh, 5 years?), so I haven't worn a helmet much recently, and I wasn't sure exactly what the guidelines were. Here are some excellent instructions from NHTSA.
Now, let's be honest, my kid is mostly only riding his scooter along flat sidewalks at a fairly leisurely pace just to and from school, with me following as close behind as I can. I don't imagine the copious brains contained under his adult-sized helmet are in much danger from a fall from his scooter. But that isn't the point, is it? The point is to establish good scootering and bicycling habits, so that if he should take an interest in more "extreme" riding, he will know how to properly wear his helmet, and will know the importance of doing so. And random falls do happen, even at the scootering-to-school-with-Mommy-following-behind pace.
When my son is older and getting himself to and from school without me, should he decide to ride his scooter, he will, of course, be required to wear his helmet. And if he disdains to wear it correctly, then he will not have the privilege of riding, because I personally find his skull and brains far more valuable than his desire to ride a two-wheeled scooter when his own two feet will serve him nicely. I do hope the parents of these other kids I see, wearing decorative helmets, chin straps a-dangling, would care enough about their kids' brains to insist upon proper strap-fastening should they become aware of the misuse. Maybe they wouldn't. I know that plenty of people do not like helmet laws and may feel that allowing their kids to flout these laws is their prerogative. It's not my business, and it's not my kid. I'm just making an observation.
If your son was spotted by a neighbor improperly wearing his helmet, and your neighbor, out of concern, came to you one day and said, "Hey, I saw Nate on his skateboard yesterday coming home from school. His helmet was on his head, but the strap wasn't fastened. I just thought you might want to know about it," how would you react? Perhaps some people might say, "Yes, I know. He wears the helmet because it's the law, but I told him if he doesn't like the chin strap, he can just not fasten it. I'm not that worried about it." Others might say, "Oh, he's in trouble now! If he's not going to wear his helmet properly, then he doesn't get to ride!" Still others might say, in all honesty, that they didn't realize that not fastening the chin strap rendered the helmet useless, for all intents and purposes, and would be glad to have filled in that information.
I'm sure that by now you can see where I'm going with this.
I see properly buckling your kid in his car seat as in the same vein as making sure your kid is wearing his helmet correctly. The goal is to keep our kids as safe as possible from preventable injury while still allowing them to be out and about and exploring the world. Kids can and should be out there on their bikes and skateboards and scooters. They should be seeing how fast they can go and riding with no hands and jumping off curbs (when there aren't cars coming) and taking turns on the ramps at the local skate park. But they should be wearing helmets when they do so. They'll need those brains for years after they need those skateboarding skills.
Five Rules for Proper Car Seat Use:
1. The harness should be snug. When you try to pinch the harness strap at the child's collarbone, you should not be able to maintain a fold in the strap between your thumb and forefinger.
2. The chest clip should be fastened and aligned with the child's armpits, and the crotch strap should be fastened.
3. The car seat should be installed tightly with either LATCH or the vehicle seat belt (but not both), so that it cannot wiggle more than 1" (one inch) side to side or front to back. Make sure the seat belt is locked if installing with the vehicle seat belt.
4. Your child should be in the proper car seat for his age, weight, and height.
5. Your child should remain in a five-point harness until he is at least four years old and 40 pounds (the older, the better) and tall enough that when he sits in a booster seat, the seat belt falls comfortably across his upper thighs (not abdomen) and shoulder (not neck).