Recent tragedy puts spotlight on use of bicycle helmets

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The death of a rider in Cape Coral’s Tour de Cape inspired at least one resident to buy two helmets last week and pushed aside the Lance Armstrong doping controversy as the main topic of conversation among bicyclers.

Rider Rich Knight of southwest Cape Coral bought the helmets Friday at Hollywood Bicycle Center on Santa Barbara Boulevard.

“I was influenced by that. When I saw the story I decided I better go buy helmets,” said Knight, who bought two bikes this month for riding around his neighborhood. He and other family members, including grandchildren will wear them when they ride, he said.

James Heneghan, 69, died January 20 during the Cape’s Tour de Cape bicycle ride. Police said his bicycle struck another and he tumbled to the ground, striking his head on the asphalt of Beach Parkway. Heneghan had been wearing a helmet, but had removed it for some reason several minutes before the wreck. A funeral Mass is scheduled for Saturday in Farmington, Connecticut. He was the first rider to die in the course of the 22-year-old event.

The crash touched off a lot of discussion and speculation about how Heneghan’s injuries might have been different had he been wearing a helmet, and why he struck the tire of a rider in front of him, said Hollywood Bicycle Center manager Rob Ossichak.

Helmets can reduce the risk of injury as much as 85 percent, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Yet 70 percent or 429 of  the 616 riders nationally who died in 2010, the latest data available, were not wearing a helmet, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s analysis of federal statistics.

Every year the estimated number of bicycling head injuries requiring hospitalization exceeds the number of such injuries related to baseball, football, skating, ice hockey, snowboarding and lacrosse, according to the Snell Memorial Foundation. The foundation became involved in helmet testing research and education in 1957. It estimates the indirect costs for those injuries to be about $2.3 billion a year.

Florida has ranked in the top three in bicycle and pedestrian fatalities every year since 2001. Riders under the age of 16 are required to wear a helmet in Florida. Older riders can choose not to wear one.

“The single most effective safety device available to reduce head injury and death from bicycle crashes is a helmet,” according to the Florida PedBike Resource Center in Gainesville. Since 2009, Florida PedBike has given away more than 1.3 million safety education materials across the state.

Helmet sales were business was brisk after word spread about Heneghan’s death, Ossichak said.

“We were almost sold out (of helmets) in three days,” Ossichak said.

He estimated 20 percent of the people buying a bike need to be urged to buy a helmet, too.

Dan Moser of BikeWalk Lee has helped hundreds of people get a properly fitted helmet and learn bicycle safety in his role as a regional fitter for the Florida PedBike Resource Center. The center, funded with state transportation dollars, provides helmets to nonprofit and government agencies with free helmets to distribute to children and adults at bike safety events.

Moser recently ordered 100 helmets and expects to give many of them away next Saturday at a bike rodeo at one of the city’s municipal charter schools.

“I probably distribute a couple hundred each year. It’s our tax dollars coming back.”

There’s no excuse for people not to have a helmet,” Moser said.

Buying the right helmet is about fit, Ossichak said. The basic helmet that can be found in big box stores for under $20 offers as much protection as pricier helmets, he said. But pricier models might have an adjustment dial in the back, or be designed for mountain biking or high performance racing.

Bicycling is a billion-dollar industry.

National Bicycle Dealers Association reports sales of bicycles and accessories and parts range from $5.8 billion to $6.1 billion a year since 2003. Most people ride for fun, but others commute or race with their bikes.

About 40 million Americans age 7 and older rode a bike at least six times in 2011, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

But there isn’t safety in numbers.