All Joshua Hamlin wanted to do was ride his bike across the street to say hi to his buddy before dinnertime. The 9-year-old's simple idea almost turned fatal when he was hit by a Ford Explorer, flew 45 feet off his bicycle and was knocked unconscious.
"It was just like any other day. He got home from school, came inside, ate really fast and said 'Mom, I'm going down to my friend's house,' and off he went," said his sister, Shania, 15.
Joshua survived his accident, but he suffered broken bones, internal bleeding and a brain injury. Today, the Apache Junction boy still has scratches, scars and some memory loss. He was not wearing a helmet. He said it was too big for him and he didn't like the way it drooped over his eyes.
As children return to school this month, local hospital officials and bike-safety advocates are renewing warnings for parents to keep their children safe from bicycle accidents. Since December 2009, 81 cases of child bicycle accidents have been reported at three Valley hospitals: Maricopa Medical Center, St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center and Cardon Children's Medical Center. In the past two years, 35 auto-bicycle accidents involving children were reported at Maricopa Medical Center alone. Officials say it is a constant flow of children at the hospitals, with at least one child with a bicycle injury every month at each of the three. Valley hospital officials say bike injuries among youngsters have tended to peak between 3 and 7 p.m., essentially during the hours when children are coming home from school and playing before dinner.
As recently as last week, a 7-year-old Flagstaff boy was fatally injured, police said, when his bicycle was struck by a car just before 6 p.m. He, too, wasn't wearing a helmet.
Many busy drivers are on the streets during those hours, coming home from work, picking up kids at school or running errands, adding to the dangers for pedestrians and bicyclists. Bike-safety advocates want parents, drivers and children to be aware of the rules of the road. And since there is no statewide helmet law, they want parents to take responsibility for their children wearing helmets - whether the youngsters want to wear one or not - to reduce traumatic head injuries.
"Bones heal. They often are stronger than they were before they were broken. The brain itself does not regenerate. You can't replace it or fix it," said Dr. Javier Cardenas, a program director at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's. Doctors and advocates say wearing a helmet is the golden rule for bike safety. It reduces the risk of brain injuries, which can have lifelong effects, Cardenas said, adding that brain injury is the No. 1 cause of death and disability among children.
Another way to improve bike safety is for parents and children to review and practice bike-safety rules, things like using turn signals and watching for traffic before crossing the road, said Brian Fellows, coordinator for the Safe Routes to School program at the Arizona Department of Transportation.
Kevin Butler, a Chandler parent, has instilled bike-safety rules in his 11-year-old daughter, Amber, since she learned to ride. Butler understands the importance. Twice as a child, he was in bicycle accidents. Amber bikes to and from school every day. Her dad says it is important to go over the "basic stuff":
- Ride on the right side of the road.
- Never assume the car sees you.
- Don't ride at night.
"We brainwashed her early: You're not getting on this thing without a helmet," Butler said. "She's adamant about wearing a helmet (now)."
Parents also can identify a route or an area where their children often play and can help their children become comfortable biking in that area, learning how to react to various risks and situations that may occur there, Fellows said. "You have to have a license to drive a car. You really need to know the rules of the road when you're riding a bike, too," he said. Free educational programs and events are available at schools, local YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs, and many of them offer free helmets, Fellows said.
Tracey Fejt, injury-prevention coordinator at Cardon Children's Medical Center, holds outreach programs on bike safety throughout the year. She stresses to parents that there are many distracted drivers on the road and that young bicyclists need to be careful. "They think the street is a playground, and some parents encourage that now and let their kids play on the street," Fejt said. "We need to remember that the street is extremely dangerous. It was never meant as a playground." Bike-safety advocates also recommend against children biking alone, especially if they are younger than 10. Joshua and his friends figured that out on their own. They developed a buddy system to accompany each other when they cross the street.
Now, Joshua has two new helmets that fit his head perfectly. He and his parents have reviewed the rules of the road several times since the accident. One of Joshua's ideas for keeping himself safe on the streets was to wrap himself in bubble wrap. But his mother, Laurie, had a better idea: Always wear a helmet.
"I thought about putting it on him even when he's not riding his bike," Laurie said. "They will forever hear from me, even 50 years from now: 'Wear your helmet.' "