A 33-year-old housewife in the city of Kure phoned the Chugoku Shimbun one day to convey her concern about her sixth-grade son. He will be attending a junior high school starting next spring and will be traveling there by bicycle, but he does not want to wear a helmet because he does not like its design.
When she explained it’s important for his safety, her son said, “Then why don’t high school students have to wear one?”
Many children that cycle to school wearing a helmet tend to be junior high school students.
As of April last year, 153 public junior high schools in Hiroshima allow their students to commute by bicycle, according to the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education. Among them, 152 junior high schools, including all 10 in Kure, instruct their students to wear helmets. Meanwhile, only one high school does so.
The local board of education says it can’t explain why junior high school students have to wear helmets but high school students don’t have to. The education ministry says that it’s up to individual local governments to decide the rules.
Hirofumi Imada, a professor at Hiroshima Bunka Gakuen University with expertise in transportation planning, speculated that junior high schools began to ask students to wear helmets between 1975 and 1986, when the government made helmets compulsory, penalizing people riding motorcycles without one.
Asked about the discrepancies between junior high and high schools, Imada said, “There are differences in physical features and physical strength. Besides, it may be because junior high schools are considered compulsory education, so junior high school students are protected.”
According to the Hiroshima Prefectural Police, the number of accidents involving bicycles in Hiroshima last year was 1,383. The number has been declining since 2002, when it hit a peak of 4,158, but 39 people died in the five years until last year. In other cases, some people avoided critical injury because they were wearing helmets.
“Unlike countries abroad, Japanese roads barely have bicycle lanes, are narrow and have a big gap with pedestrian roads,” Imada said, arguing that wearing a helmet is absolutely necessary. “There aren’t many environments where children, including junior high and high school students, can ride bicycles safely.”
Medical experts stress the importance of putting a helmet on.
“Protecting the head directly connects to protecting life,” said Dr. Kaoru Terasaka, a neurosurgeon and a director of Kurekyosai Clinics. “(Wearing helmets) can prevent aftereffects. Not only junior high school students, whose skulls are developing, but adults should also wear helmets.”
Some children understand the importance of wearing helmets for safety, but their feelings on the matter are complicated.
“I don’t want to wear it,” said a 14-year-old male student in his second-year at a junior high school in Kure. “The shape is tacky and (the helmet) can smell bad.”
A 16-year-old female student in her second year at high school wondered what she would do if she were told to wear it. “I don’t want to be treated like a child. My hair gets messed up, and I don’t like the design.”
When a reporter asked junior high schoolers who commute by bicycle what they thought, many said they don’t like the circular and white helmets they were wearing.
Even though bicycle stores sell a variety of helmets with different shapes and colors, the Kure Municipal Board of Education said, “We leave the design entirely to individual schools. We haven’t heard of cases where students can choose the design.”
This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on Nov. 30.