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Hard-Headed Advice on Having Fun

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Try this quiz: Name the one thing everyone in your family can do together on vacation or at home--from grandpa to your bored-with-life teen to the baby. It’s healthy, environmentally friendly and even free, once you’ve got the basic equipment. (Hint: Check the garage.)

Did you find your bike out there? Dust it off and you can join 100 million other Americans--including 40 million kids--who are taking to the nation’s bike paths and back roads in ever-growing numbers.

“Instead of going to places like Santa Barbara and sitting on the beach, families are riding bikes. It’s a status thing to have a bike rack on your car these days,” joked Pat Hines, a former professional cyclist who founded Safe Moves, a government-supported program that teaches bicycle and pedestrian safety to more than 2 million Southern California schoolchildren and their parents each year. The program will be expanding nationally next year.

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“Biking has gotten to the point where we have two generations now--grandparents as well as parents--out there biking with the kids,” said Bill Wilkinson, executive vice president of the industry-supported Bicycle Institute of America.

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They are hooking $250 toddler trailers on the backs of their bikes and specially equipping tandems, so kids can ride them. They’re joining recreational cycling clubs in growing numbers (such as the nation’s largest, Bikecentennial, 406-721-1776), taking bikes along to national parks, and signing on for bike trips especially designed for families. (The Tourfinder, from the League of American Wheelmen, offers a complete list of family-friendly companies for $5 by calling 800-288-BIKE.)

Bruce Burgess’ Vermont-based Bicycle Holidays, for example, will custom-design an itinerary in the Green Mountain State for your family--even for just an afternoon (800-292-5388). His advice: Seek out level terrain and plenty of stops with kid appeal.

Wilkinson adds that a cycling trip to Ireland with his then-13-year-old son provided the unexpected benefit of bridging that always-difficult generation gap between teen-ager and parent. “Biking is a great equalizer,” Wilkinson explained. “You both have to go up the hills.”

Just be realistic about how far the children can peddle, typically no more than five to 10 miles in a day, the experts advise.

“You don’t have to go far to have a good time,” said Hines, who cycles frequently with her nieces and other children. Plan your route ahead of time, she suggested, even driving it if you can. Wear comfortable clothes and stop frequently for snacks, as well as to look around. And don’t forget the baby powder--it does wonders for protecting backsides and feet.

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Most important, whether you’re going around the block or miles down a country road, make sure everyone is wearing a helmet--parents, as well as children.

Don’t make the same mistake Maria Mason did. “I figured the kids didn’t need helmets if they weren’t riding in the street,” the Washington, D.C., mother said. That was before her 7-year-old son Bradley tumbled headfirst over the handlebars, fracturing his skull. By the next morning, he had lapsed into a coma that lasted a week.

Bradley spent the summer in the hospital--nearly six weeks in intensive care followed by more than a month in a rehabilitation center. He still goes to physical therapy twice a week and it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to handle a regular school schedule this year. Still, she counts her family lucky: Bradley survived and eventually will be fine. “But it didn’t have to happen at all,” she said.

If you think a bike helmet is too expensive or too much of a bother to get on your 10-year-old’s head, consider that 400 children die every year from bike accidents, most from head injuries, and 400,000 are hurt badly enough to require emergency room treatment. Bike accidents are the leading cause of death for children aged 5 to 14.

While there’s no way to prevent kids from crashing on their bikes, it’s at least reassuring that we can provide some insurance for the times they do. Studies show bike helmets reduce the risk of serious injury by 85%. That’s why the rule in our house is: No helmet, no bike.

In California, a mandatory helmet law has just been signed by the governor, and seven other states have them.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics has launched a public information campaign to promote bike helmet use and so has the National PTA (check with your pediatrician or PTA for details).

And before the end of the year, Safe Moves will introduce a $12.95 bike helmet--among the cheapest available--complete with flashing rear light (call Safe Moves at 310-399-4805 for more information and to receive a free coloring book and bike safety quiz).

Meanwhile, Chico neurosurgeon Jeff Lobosky is doing his part. Since he started the Heads Up project three years ago, with the help of the Rotary Club, he’s given away 17,000 helmets in the three-county area north of Sacramento (for a free booklet on how to start a Heads Up project in your community, write: Heads Up, 253 Cohasset Road, Chico, Calif. 95926).

Lobosky uses a watermelon to convey his point to kids. After a bike accident without a helmet, he tells them, their heads will look like the smashed watermelon he’s just thrown on the ground.

The appeal seems to work. “We haven’t had a kid die since we started this program,” he reports. “And we’ve had at least 10 ‘saves’--where a helmet saved a child’s life.”

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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