Four days after her 4-year-old son survived being run over by a neighbor's pickup truck, Leslie Dobbs marvels at the sight of his crushed bicycle helmet.
"Eli's helmet is just shattered," she said from her home in Urbandale, Iowa, a suburb of 39,000 residents outside of Des Moines. "It's completely a miracle."
The details of the accident are as bizarre as Eli walking away from it with only cuts and bruises. Police say Eli was hit by a 2005 GMC Sierra truck knocked into neutral-gear by a neighbor's toddler around 5 p.m. Saturday.
Dobbs said the toddler's older brother let the 2-year-old inside the truck. "Somehow, he got it into neutral and it started rolling down the driveway."
Two houses away, Dobbs and her husband watched in horror as the truck rolled toward her son and the toddler's brother, both standing in the street at the end of the driveway. Eli had just gotten off his bike.
"We both saw it and couldn't do anything," she said.
Dobbs, a physical therapist, expected the worst until she heard her son crying. Only the helmet's strap remained around his head; the rest of the plastic crushed into pieces. Eli's father, Chad, told police the other boy was knocked down but not run over by the truck, according to the police report.
"This could have been a fatal accident, or a major brain injury," she said. "We totally feel the helmet saved Eli's life."
Research shows more than half of all children who ride bikes don't wear helmets, according to Randy Swart of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute in Arlington, Va. "Their parents don't make them wear one, the other kids don't wear one," he said. "You can't expect kids to figure it out by themselves."
In 2009, 630 bicyclists were killed on U.S. roads, according to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of them, 74 were 14 years or younger.
Swart said it appeared the shape and slickness of Eli’s helmet helped push his head out of the way. Officer Jeff Casey, a spokesman for the Urbandale Police Department, agrees.
"The top part of the helmet was hit by the tire," he said. "It was just enough to push the kid's head clear of the tire and squeeze it out of the helmet."
“It could have killed him if he wasn’t wearing the helmet,” Casey said.
Thirteen states, including Iowa, have no state or local helmet laws. But Leslie Dobbs said a helmet is not optional for her children, whether on a bike, scooter or skateboard. Eli's sister Caroline is 3.
The day after the accident, Eli was released from the hospital and presented with his damaged bicycle, repaired by a neighbor.
“Within five minutes,” his mother said, “he was back on his bike," wearing a new helmet.
"I don't want to bonk my head," Eli said.
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