Researchers did a study on bicycle helmet use in a rural Georgia town. They observed children riding bicycles during specified days and times over a five month period, both before and after incentive programs like free helmet distribution and bike safety education. Another “incentive” was that kids’ bicycles would be impounded if they were found riding without a helmet. Researchers canvassed the towns on Friday afternoons and most of the day Saturday, as these were determined to be the most popular riding times.
They observed the riders indirectly and noted the child’s age, gender, race, and helmet use. Data was collected for children who were between the ages of 5 and 13, which are the ages that the helmet law covered. The researchers found that these measures increased helmet use from 0% to about 45%. Sampling for this study was somewhat difficult. Because the researchers were using only observation, and they did not track any individual riders or interact with them in any way, they were unable to guarantee that the riders were actually of the targeted age.
This is especially true of older kids, between the ages of 10 and 13, as these kids have extremely varying sizes and presence or absence of secondary sexual characteristics, which were two of the determining factors in determining the child’s age. Sampling the older group was also difficult because not everyone in this age group actually received a helmet, since they went to a larger school that included children from another town. The results for this age group, then, are probably skewed and possibly not very valid.
The town’s racial make up, too, was heavily slanted towards black children, with 75% black and 25% white children. Due to cultural differences between black and white children, researchers may need to repeat these studies in communities where racial make up is more heavily white, and communities which include Asians, Latinos, and other races. Each culture is individual and each would likely have a different reaction to the helmet laws and police enforcement. Within this community, the researchers probably should have used only the 5 – 10 years age group, as this group could be more carefully controlled.
Researchers were aware that this age group, which attended elementary school, did all receive free helmets and bicycle education. They also would possibly have an easier time observing age, as size is more indicative in younger children rather than in older children. This study was somewhat valid. The researchers admit that they were unable to track individual riders, so when they had four observers canvassing the town at once, it was possible that certain riders may have been recorded several times (a possibility that the researchers themselves are aware of, but are not concerned with).
Noting, as they said, “rides” instead of “riders” also is a limitation, although the researchers felt that their method of observation led to more accurate data than self-reported data via telephone or mail surveys. It is possible that the same group of children was observed multiple times during each session, and in fact overall helmet use was lower. This, too, depends on how the researchers define “rate of helmet use,” because number of rides where a helmet is used, and the number of riders who use a helmet is a different measure.
Another issue with validity is that it was impossible for researchers to track how frequently individual riders wore their helmets. It is possible that some children always wore one, and other children rarely or occasionally wore one. A better measure of helmet use would have been to track individual children and to note how frequently they wore their helmets while riding their bikes. Police enforcement is another issue in this study. Every community who adopts a program of this type may choose a different kind of enforcement, or none at all.
This community allowed parent citations (which were rarely used) and bike impoundment (parents had to go and pick the bike up at the police station, where they proved helmet ownership or were offered a free helmet, and they were also re-educated on bike safety). Other communities may rely more heavily on citations, or they may choose fines. Fines were not a good option for this community, as it was a rural community where a large minority lived below the poverty line.
Another issue is that the police may be perceived differently in different areas. As the researchers noted, even the knowledge of police presence and enforcement was enough for many children to wear their helmets. This suggests a respect for the police force, which is common in rural areas. In other areas, especially urban, police may not be regarded so highly, and enforcement may become a larger problem. In an urban area, the sheer number of children would also possibly be prohibitive.
This study was fairly reliable. Researchers followed up on the helmet use unofficially after 2 years and came up with similar results, which indicates both that helmet use was continuing and that the study was able to achieve the same results. Other studies, if they used the same observation methods, would probably also achieve similar results. This study is repeatable as written, despite its flaws. A better way to do this study would be to gather two groups of children: experimental and control.
Both groups would be surveyed and observed for their helmet use at the beginning of the study, and these numbers would be compared. Then, the experimental group would be given the bicycle safety education and be offered free helmets. The second group would be told they should wear helmets but not offered extensive bicycle education or given free helmets. The researchers would then track individual riders through observation on at least a weekly basis to see how many in each group wore their helmets on a frequent basis.
This would allow researchers to track “riders” instead of simply rides, and to make sure that each child was only counted once in their statistics. It would also show the effect of bicycle education and offering free helmets on helmet use. It is likely in this particular study that children only began to wear their helmets because they were offered free helmets. If they had been asked to go and buy helmets, cost would likely have been prohibitive in a rural, low socio-economic area. Therefore, providing the helmets was a key point in the plan.
It may be interesting to do a study where children are provided with bicycle education and a list of resources on where to purchase helmets, but not actually provided with them. This study would best be done in a suburban area where the socio-economic status was higher, and would show the effect of bicycle education and possibly police enforcement on helmet use. Since further studies are possible and needed, and since the researchers themselves are aware of the study’s limitations, it would be prudent not to extend these results to all communities and situations.
The study is ideal for the researchers’ purposes but has a highly limited scope. Overall, this research is very interesting. Regardless of the study’s limitations, introducing bike safety and helmets into the community resulted in statistically significant increases in helmet use, which purportedly resulted in fewer bike-related injuries and deaths. This is a step in the right direction, and although more research and more community programs are needed to both increase helmet use and decrease injuries, this study shows that programs are effective and change is possible.