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'98 memory all too vivid yet not tragic

The headline read "Truck hits, injures bike rider, 12," on June 20, 1998. What followed was a fairly routine news story about a type of accident that happens around the world every day.

"A 12-year-old bicyclist suffered serious injuries Friday afternoon when he veered into the path of a truck in the Town of Alden, Erie County sheriff's deputies reported."

But the last line in the second paragraph is the best part: "Deputies said Gerald was spared more serious head injuries because he was wearing a helmet."

If only all the stories about accidents between bicycles and motor vehicles had an ending line that happy. If only there were none with the line that reads: "The victim was not wearing a helmet."

We have raised generations of children who are horrified at the sight of someone smoking a cigarette, who know exactly what to do if a stranger gets too close, who finished at the top of their DARE class and now know how to spot the signs of alcoholism. But those same children will think nothing of jumping on a bike without putting on a helmet.

"I'm just going up the street," they will say. "I'll be careful."

How many parents are living in a perpetual fog as those words ring in their ears -- the last words they heard their child say, maybe the last words they ever said, before the screeching brakes, the skidding tires, the sickening thud.

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute in Arlington, Va., which tracks statistics on helmet safety, said 770 bicyclists died on U.S. roads in 2006. More than 90 percent died in crashes with motor vehicles. The "typical" cyclist killed in those accidents was not wearing a helmet.

Charlene Slawinski's son Gerry isn't included in that statistic, and he wasn't in 1998, either, when he was a 12-year-old riding his bicycle on Crittenden Road in Alden.

Although it has been 10 years and four months since he made headlines, his mother still rattles off the details of the accident that nearly killed her son.

She remembers the day -- last day of school/first day of summer vacation; where he was -- Alden Town Park; what he was doing there -- playing street hockey; who took the call -- her daughter; and what she was doing when it happened -- sleeping, after working a midnight shift.

Most importantly, she remembers what he was wearing: his bicycle helmet.

"My kids were never allowed to be on their bikes unless they had a helmet on," she said last week. "That was just the rule. You didn't even ride your bike in the driveway without a helmet on. Basically, that was the only thing that saved him."

The news report at the time said young Gerry apparently had veered into traffic and was hit when he was on his way home at 2:30 p.m.

He was taken to Children's Hospital and placed in the intensive-care unit. His condition was quickly upgraded from critical to good, but he suffered serious road rash and underwent whirlpool therapy. He had a summer without sports -- if you know a 12-year-old boy, you know what that can be like -- and suffered short-term memory loss.

After the accident, his mother got a look at the bike helmet. He had been wearing a baseball cap underneath at the time of the accident. When he hit the ground, the cap came through the helmet's vents and tore. Without the helmet, that cap would have been his head.

Today, Gerry is 22 and a student at the University at Buffalo. Thanks to his helmet.


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