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Click here to see a slideshow of photos from the Clear Sky Festival in Keystone Park.

In the past year, four River Forest children have been injured in bike accidents. That worried and even frightened River Forest moms Susan Lucci and Sue Gee. Rather than complain and wring their hands, they decided to do something. They came up with a bike-safety program – All Heads in Helmets – that not only is educational and rewarding, it may also be changing some kids’ behavior.

Lucci and Gee get the word out that, while riding a bike, you’ve got to protect your head. They focus on safety gear proven to cut the risk that kids will lose their most irreplaceable asset: their brains.

“If you had a $100,000 crystal bowl, would you ride around with it unprotected?” Lucci asked, not so rhetorically. “No, you’d protect it carefully.”

“Why are we waiting for tragedy?” Lucci asked.

Over the spring and summer, All Heads in Helmets has hosted presentations around the village, at schools, at the park district and at the library. On Saturday, Sept. 12, they held one at the Clear Sky Festival in Keystone Park.

Lucci praised the village’s elected and appointed officials, saying they’ve been very supportive of the program.

Besides education, AHIH looks to incentivize safety, rewarding a few kids seen wearing helmets with raffled prizes like iPods, iTunes gift cards and even new bikes. Dan’s Bike Shop, Barnard’s Schwinn, Panera Bread and iTunes have all contributed prizes.

Kids can go to the library, park district and village hall and drop off the citations. Four tickets are drawn every month in June through August. A fourth drawing was held at the Clear Sky Festival; there will be another drawing in October.

While there’s the possibility police will take a tougher line in enforcement, they don’t appear inclined to do that yet. River Forest’s police chief, Frank Limon, an enthusiastic supporter of All Heads in Helmets, said he’d prefer to keep it voluntary.

“That’s the route we want to go,” he said. “We’re looking for voluntary compliance.”

Limon said his officers also liked the positive interaction that passing out the incentive citations affords them with the village’s youth, calling it a “win-win situation.”

There have been obstacles. While the program has been well accepted at the village’s two grade schools, Willard and Lincoln, it’s been more of a slog in the middle school.

“The older kids don’t think it’s cool,” said Lucci.

Whether they realize their mortality or not, older kids are getting hurt. A seventh grader was recently hit by a car backing out of a driveway and suffered broken ribs. Another child was stuck last year, suffering broken ribs, collar bone and wrist, but no head injury, despite his helmet being demolished.

Anna Gebert said her 13-year-old daughter Julia was crossing Ashland at Chicago in a crosswalk Thursday morning on her way to school when she was struck by a driver on her front wheel. Julia was knocked off her bike and sustained bruises, but no other injuries. She was wearing a helmet. Whether that saved her from head injury isn’t clear, and Gebert said that’s not the issue.

“Julia always wears a helmet,” her mom noted, acknowledging her sons do not. “They say, ‘Don’t worry, Mom, I’m not going to fall.”

But cold statistics show that’s not necessarily true.

“A child is killed in the U.S. every day,” said Gail Rosseau, a River Forest resident who is a neurosurgeon. “An adult every six hours. A person is injured every four minutes.”

“One child in seven will receive a brain injury as a result of a bike injury,” she said. There is only one sure way to protect against devastating brain injuries while on a bike – all heads in helmets all the time. Every time. No exceptions.

“It’s impossible to overstate this,” she said. “Bike injuries are the No. 1 sports-related injury in the U.S.” Unhelmeted riders of all ages, she said, are 15 more times likely to be killed in a crash than those who skulls are protected.

No one is immune, said Rosseau. It’s not how old you are or experienced or how far you are from home or even if you avoid the street. The average distance from home for bike accidents is five blocks.

Her point was underscored recently when a 59-year-old Oak Park man, a veteran cyclist, was struck by a car door as he rode his bike Aug. 31. Besides a broken foot and painful bruising to his tailbone and arm, the man suffered a serious skull fracture.

The man’s wife, who asked that their last name not be used, underscored Rosseau’s comments – she wants people to know that age and experience make little difference in a biking accident. Her husband, she said, logged over 3,000 miles last year.

“He had 3,700 miles already this year,” she said. Doctors weren’t sure of the extent of his injuries, and whether he would fully recover. While he’s doing “remarkably well,” she said, he’s still home from work and not out of the woods.

“It’s just been a horrible thing to go through,” she said. “It’s been a nightmare.”

There is, Rosseau stressed, no way to predict how and when serious accidents will happen. Staying off the street won’t guarantee safety, either.

“Many of the most serious injuries are in driveways and on sidewalks, and not in the street,” she said. “Almost 78 percent of serious bike-related head injuries occur not at an intersection.”

Like Lucci and Gee, Gebert said she’s “frightened for the kids out there.”

“There are a lot of drivers out there who are distracted.”

“These head injuries take a long time to heal,” the wife of the 59-year old cycling veteran said.

If, in fact, they ever do. The clinical realities of brain injuries are chilling.

“I’d love to be able to tell you that neurosurgeons have found the answer to this and are able to put a scrambled brain, a damaged spinal cord, back together,” said Rosseau.

“The treatment is prevention,” she said. “What you want to do is take them back in time before the accident happened, upfront, where it counts.”

Rosseau refers to studies that show the effects of rapid deceleration on watermelons.

“The brain keeps moving when the skull stops,” she said. It can literally bounce around off the inside of the skull. The brain can be literally turned into mush.

“The brain is very, very soft,” she said.

The All Heads in Helmets program will likely become formalized soon.

“The River Forest Park Board Foundation has agreed to take it under their umbrella,” said Lucci. Rosseau suggest that, while the program is an excellent addition, and police enforcement is good, it can’t replaced parental involvement.

“Kids are 10 to 20 times more likely to wear a helmet if their parent do so,” she said. “Kids really do what you do, and not what you say.”


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