Teenagers do pay attention to what adults do, at least when it comes to wearing motorcycle helmets. That's the news from a study in Pediatrics, which found that teenagers are more likely to suffer traumatic brain injuries in motorcycle crashes in states where helmets are required for motorcyclists under age 21, but not for adults.
You might think this bit of data applies just to families with motorcyclists, but that's not so. Parents often think that teenagers ignore them, and teens don't hesitate to give that impression. The motorcycle-helmet study is just the latest in a pile of research showing that teenagers really do watch parents' actions closely, and emulate them. Teenagers whose parents don't exercise are more likely to be couch potatoes. Parents who watch a lot of TV tend to have children who log a lot of screen time. And parents who model other safe behavior, whether it's not texting while driving or never driving after drinking alcohol, are going to have an easier time getting kids to follow those rules, too.
Bicycle helmets are also effective in reducing injuries among children and teens, even though there's far less velocity involved with these two-wheelers. Making bicycle helmets mandatory for youths reduced the injury rate by 24 percent the year after North Carolina passed a bike helmet law in 2001. But children and teens are all too willing to skip wearing helmets if they don't have to. Only about 25 percent of children always wear bike helmets, according to a 2004 study, even though most own them. Perhaps not surprisingly, most state and local bicycle helmet laws require them for children and teens, but not for adults.
Teenage motorcyclists are probably less likely to wear a helmet if they think they won't get caught and fined, according to the authors of the Pediatrics study. Requiring adults to wear helmets, too, makes it easier for police officers to enforce helmet laws because they don't have to deal with trying to figure out which motorcyclists are young enough to require a helmet. And universal helmet laws produce plenty of good examples for teens to follow. Still, anti-helmet advocates often use under-21 helmet laws as ammunition for repealing universal laws that require adults to helmet up, arguing that tender young brains will be protected while granting adults the right to feel the wind in their hair. This new research suggests that when it comes to protecting young brains that have a lifetime of thinking ahead of them, that's a false argument.