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Column originally published Aug 5, 2008

Summer Safety: Bicycle Helmet, Backyard Pool, Sunscreen, And More

Question: I am an emergency room physician. Every summer we see a lot of children coming to the emergency room with different kinds of injuries, many of them I believe can be avoided. I would appreciate if you can remind your readers about the importance of preventing their children from some of these injuries.


Thank you for asking me to address the issue of unintended injuries in children, especially in the summer. As paediatricians, we are often called to the hospital to manage these children. I agree with you that many of these injuries can be prevented. Parents have to pay more attention to their children, especially around safety issues.

When we think of summer, we think of outdoor activities. There is probably no activity more popular than riding bicycles. Unfortunately, many provinces don’t have the bicycle helmet law requiring every cyclist to wear an approved bicycle helmet. In those provinces that have such a law, they are often not enforced by the police. This is really a tragedy: every year, many children and adults get injured or killed because they don’t wear the bicycle helmet.

One can almost compare wearing a bicycle helmet when cycling with putting on the seat belt when riding in a car. More than 80% of Canadians wear the seat belts, but far fewer adults and children put on their bicycle helmets. Police will charge drivers if they or anyone in the car don’t have their seat belts buckled. Why on earth would they not enforce the bicycle helmet law? This is something that still baffles me every day.

Another contradiction that I have seen is children wearing helmets, but not their parents. These adults are not setting a good example for their kids. It is almost like telling their children if they are old enough, they don’t have to wear the helmet anymore. The bicycle helmets are for all ages: adult’s skull is just as vulnerable as children’s when it comes to head injury.

Parents should also check to make sure their children are putting on the bicycle helmets properly. The helmet needs to fit the child’s head. If it is too tight, you need to buy a larger one. The straps need to fit snugly under the chin, otherwise the helmet will fly off and will not protect your child’s head in a fall.

Children also need to learn how to ride the bicycle safely, especially in larger towns and cities. Parents need to teach them how to walk their bikes when crossing busy streets. We want them to enjoy the summer, but we also want them to be safe.

In the last decade, all-terrain vehicles, also called ATVs, have become very popular across the country. Many people have great fun enjoying nature on their ATVs. However, every year, many adults and children also suffer serious and sometimes fatal injuries while riding ATVs. Alcohol is often involved in serious accidents. However, children can be injured because of lack of experience and physical ability to maneuver these machines. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that children under 16 should not operate an ATV.

Swimming is also a popular activity in summer. Many larger cities and towns have indoor or outdoor swimming pools that are supervised by life-guards and are generally safe. Backyard swimming pools used to be tiny wading pools for toddlers. In the last few years, we have seen fairly large swimming pools that can hold several feet of water. I am sure they provide great fun for many children during the hot summer days. However, most communities have little or no municipal laws governing these backyard swimming pools. As a result, many parents never give a thought to their safety when they put up these pools.

If you plan to put a pool in your backyard, you need to consult with your town hall or municipal government to find out the rules that are in place. If there are no such rules where you live, you should think about safety, not just for your children, but for those in your neighbourhood who may wander into your backyard without your knowledge and can accidentally fall into the pool. It does not take a lot of water to cause drowning for a small child. Even toddlers can climb up a few steps and fall into the pool. When you leave the pool area, make sure the steps are removed so that little ones cannot climb them. The emotional trauma of knowing a child was seriously injured or killed in your pool is something that will affect you for a very long time, not to mention about the anguish of the child’s parents.

It is hard to talk about summer and sun without mentioning about sun safety. All of us have heard about the danger of ultraviolet light causing skin cancer. The danger is real, and should be taken seriously. Every time we get a sunburn, we increase our chance of developing skin cancer. If you are planning to go to the beach with your children, it is a good idea to put on sunscreen before they get into the water. If your children are going to be in and out of water, the sunscreen can get washed away and you need to reapply regularly to prevent them from getting sunburn. If they are sitting under the sun, put on a wide brim hat to protect the face and ears, as well as a T-shirt to prevent sunburn over the shoulders and back.

It is also very important to teach children to wear sunglasses from an early age. There is no question that long term exposure to strong ultraviolet light can cause damage to the eyes years later.

Summer is a time all of us should enjoy, especially because we have such long winters in Canada. However, we need to make sure that whatever we do, we do it safely. Most accidents are not really accidents because they can be avoided, if we are careful and take safety precautions.