• Posted Mar 4, 2002

Bicycle accidents that seem minor can cause serious abdominal injuries in children, say researchers in Philadelphia who have designed a handlebar that they hope will make biking safer.

In a typical low-speed bike crash, the bicycle hits an obstruction like a rock or a curb and comes to a stop. The cyclist instinctively turns the handlebar to regain balance, causing one end to swing toward the midriff. As the cyclist tips forward and falls, the closer end of the handlebar digs into the rider's abdomen while the opposite end hits the ground. The impact can injure the kidneys, liver and spleen. Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia reconstructed a number of such accidents based on interviews with children with abdominal injuries. "In many of these cases, there wasn't a lot of bruising. The symptoms of the injuries were delayed for hours," said Dr. Kristy B. Arbogast, a bioengineer at the hospital who led the effort to design a safer handlebar. The design consists of a spring mounted on a cylindrical shaft at the end of the handlebar. Upon impact, the spring gets compressed, causing the shaft to retract and absorb some of the shock. Grease around the spring prevents it from snapping back quickly to its original length, an effect known as damping. "Since the child's middle would stay in contact with the handlebar for some time after the fall, we want to make sure it rebounds in a controlled manner," Dr. Arbogast said. In a crash, the new design could cut the force of the handlebar's impact on the cyclist's abdomen by half, said the research group, which included Dr. Flaura K. Winston, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital, and two engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Arbogast said that cushioning the impact was likely to lower the risk of injury, but that more tests were needed to confirm its safety. In a petition under review, Dr. Winston has asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to set performance standards for bicycle handlebars — a move that will impel bike manufacturers to consider new handlebar designs like the one developed by Dr. Arbogast's group. The Children's Hospital has filed a patent application on the design. According to a study presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics last fall, more than 800 children in the United States are hospitalized every year for abdominal injuries caused by handlebars. Susan Bookspan, a bike safety specialist at Phoenix Children's Hospital, said the design was a welcome addition to efforts to reduce injuries from bicycle accidents. While designing safer bicycles is important, Ms. Bookspan said, it is just as necessary to teach children to be cautious cyclists. "There are things parents can do," she said, "like running a simple safety check of their kid's bike to make sure that the brakes work." By YUDHIJIT BHATTACHARJEE New York Times

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