By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Town Police Officer Mike Terwilliger rolled down the window of his police cruiser, turned on the red and blue lights, and leaned over to catch the attention of a young bicyclist on the sidewalk of Nott Street.
“Hey there, do you have a minute?” he called.
The kid nodded, stopped his bike, and waited for Terwilliger to climb from the car. In the officer’s hand was a stack of blank tickets. He began to fill one out.
The 11-year-old was about to get something much sweeter than a traffic summons.
“You’ve been caught wearing your helmet,” Terwilliger said, handing over a gift certificate for a free serving of ice cream at Stewart’s.
The reward is part of a program, 17 years running, through Assemblyman Jim Tedisco’s office. Officially called “Safe Summer,” its aim is to keep kids’ heads safe while school is out. In Niskayuna, the summer treats are sponsored by Stewart’s, Ben and Jerry’s and Friendly’s.
Terwilliger, who is also a carseat specialist at the Niskayuna Police Department and runs safety-focused bike rodeos for kids throughout the summer, has been handing out the “good tickets” from the beginning — and he’s seen it make a difference.
“Bicycle helmets weren’t a big thing when I got the job,” he said. When the initiative first started, officers would have to remind kids to put on helmets at least as often as they passed out rewards. The first time kids were spotted without helmets, their parents would be given coupons for discounted or free helmets.
If they were caught a second time, officers would issue a traffic summons to their parents. New York state law mandates everyone under the age of 14 wear a helmet while riding a bicycle. Thankfully, Terwilliger says, most kids now follow the rule.
“If you look at the statistics of kids getting injured without their helmets, it’s pretty scary,” he said.
About 2,000 New Yorkers are hospitalized each year after being involved in cycling accidents, and about 38 percent of those sustain brain injuries, according to the state Department of Health. Head injuries are the leading cause of bicycle-related death in New York.
The easiest way to prevent those injuries is, of course, to strap on a well-fitted helmet. Vincent Somaio, a physician at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady, says head safety gear is paramount.
“You’re less likely to have a serious injury if you have a helmet on,” he said. “It’s a significant reduction in injury risk. We see a lot of children that are not wearing helmets that come through with concussions.”
A few brain injuries are life-altering and may involve months of recovery, especially in situations that involve collisions between cars and bikes. More commonly, kids get concussions that are painful to recover from and exclude them from fun.
“Let’s talk about a kid who just got a concussion,” Somaio said. “You’re looking at somewhere between two weeks and six weeks before they’re recovered.”
The types of concussions Somaio usually encounters require a lot of rest, meaning patients aren’t allowed to go to school — which might not sound so bad, but they’re also not allowed to play sports, join after-school activities or even play video games.
“They almost have to have their brain rest and reboot,” he said.
To prevent missing out on all their favorite games and activities, Somaio said not only do kids need to wear helmets, they have to make sure they’re properly fitted. A loose or unbuckled helmet won’t do much, if anything, to protect the brain.
“Having a helmet on isn’t a decoration,” he said. “It needs to be fitted.” He added that helmets also are important for sports other than cycling, including skateboarding, scootering, snowboarding and skiing.
Well-fitted helmets are part of Terwilliger’s mission, too. At the bike rodeos he organizes, he teaches parents to adjust the buckles near a child’s ears, not just the one under the chin.
But if all those details escape the young kids who ride their bikes through the streets in summer, one will not: Wearing a helmet may score them some ice cream. During one recent ride, Terwilliger saw a brother and sister playing on the sidewalk near their home.
While the older sister wore her helmet, the brother did not — and had to watch his sister get a free treat he couldn’t share. Immediately, he ran inside to try to find his helmet.
“We had a big fight about this earlier,” said the boy’s baby-sitter. He hadn’t wanted to put on a helmet, and his stubbornness had won the fight.
Terwilliger said he hoped his stop would help her convince him to be safer.
“It will,” the baby-sitter said. “He loves ice cream.”