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Kids and Bikes: How to Keep Young Cyclists Safe

It can be easy for children—and even parents—to see their bicycle as a toy. The reality is that bikes are not toys. In fact, more children ages 5 to 14 go to hospital emergency rooms for injuries associated with bicycles than with any other sport. Despite the obvious dangers, riding a bike is a wonderful activity for kids. For younger kids, it improves coordination, provides exercise and is a fun activity that the whole family can do together. For older kids, riding a bike gives them the chance to be independent. You can teach your kids to understand that biking should be a whole lot of fun—with a healthy dose of caution. In this chapter, I’ve put together a list of tips to help parents make sure that their children ride safely.

Understand their limitations

Remember—children are not small adults. Children simply do not have the cognitive abilities that adult riders do. Here’s some examples:

  • Children are not able to use their peripheral vision as adults do, and particularly children in grades K-3 have trouble spotting objects in their peripheral vision.
  • Children do not naturally use sound to identify where traffic is coming from, and instead rely solely on their vision.
  • Children are unable to grasp the complexity of many traffic situations. For example, they might believe that a road is safe because they cannot see any cars present, despite a nearby blind curve.
  • Children are easily distracted and have poor impulse control. They may not understand the serious consequences of crossing a road without waiting for the light to change or the road to clear.
  • Children believe that adults are responsible for their safety, and will look out for them, even a stranger driving an oncoming car.

Know their abilities

Though of course each child is different, there are some general guidelines about the abilities of children at different ages.

Ages 1 to 5

  • Most children ages 5 and under are not ready to ride a bike. You can start teaching them about bike safety while they are passengers on your bike, however.
  • Teach preschool cyclists how bicycles are not the same as a toy car or a tricycle. Bicycles are not toys.
  • Teach them to stay away from the street, and to keep an eye out for things that might hurt them.
  • Make sure they wear a helmet at all times, and they understand why helmets are so important.
  • Familiarize them with different parts of the bike and helmet, and how to use the brakes to slow and stop.

Ages 5 to 8

  • Many children learn to ride a bike during this time, and they should learn safe riding skills at the same time.
  • Children at this age should not ride unsupervised.
  • The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children in this age group ride only on the sidewalk, assuming that riding on the sidewalk is legal in your community. Make sure that your children learns to alert pedestrians to their presence, and understand that being on the sidewalk does not mean they are free from danger. They should still watch for cars in driveways, and always walk their bikes across intersections.
  • Make sure your child develops riding skills like avoiding obstacles in the road and riding in the straight line while looking behind.
  • Teach them about selecting a good route. If they ride their bike to school, you should ride or walk with them until you are confident they can do it on their own.
  • Even if they are riding on the sidewalk, children should always ride in the direction of traffic, and learn to obey traffic signs and signals.
  • Teach them how to communicate with others on the road with hand signals and eye contact, and to look out for signs from others.
  • Familiarize them with all the equipment on the bike, and the importance of their helmet.

Ages 9 to 12

  • There is no set age for determining whether a child is ready to ride on the road. However, most children in this age group have developed the skills to ride on arterial roads. Beginner cyclists, no matter their age, should ride with supervision.
  • Before letting your child ride on their own, think about their behavior out of traffic. Are they able to control their impulses? Do they take risks? Do they have trouble paying attention? Their behavior on the road will likely echo their behavior off the road.
  • Never, ever let them ride against traffic.
  • Teach them about advanced riding skills such as selecting gears and road positioning.
  • Emphasize the importance of wearing a helmet. Many preteens and teens will begin to think helmets are uncool. See below for tips on how to get around this dangerous notion.

Ages 13-17

  • Teen cyclists have much more independence. Stress that this means that they also have more responsibility as well.
  • Teens should continue to work on riding skills like panic stops and riding in the winter.
  • Teach them about common collision types and how to avoid them.
  • Everyone should avoid riding at night. If they must, teach them to use proper lights on their bike, along with reflective clothing.
  • As they learn to drive a car, remind them of what they learned as a cyclist, and how to keep an eye out for cyclists on the road.

Set the rules

It’s never too early to teach them the rules of safety. Even if they’re just a passenger on your bike, you can start pointing out the rules of the road as you ride. Once they have their own bike, you should go over this list with them, and make sure to review real-world examples when you’re actually on the road. Here’s the essential list for bike safety directions for kids:

  • Ride in the same direction as traffic.
  • Obey all traffic laws.
  • Stop and look both ways before entering traffic.
  • Walk the bike across busy intersections.
  • Watch for cars entering the road from driveways or parking spots.
  • Use hand signals and look in all directions before turning.
  • Ride predictably—avoid swerving suddenly.
  • Ride single file on the right.
  • Never ride at night or at dusk. If you are out late, you should call for a ride.
  • Wear bright colored clothing.
  • Never wear headphones or eat while riding.
  • If you need to carry something while on the bike, you should put it in a backpack to keep your hands free.
  • Always keep at least one hand on the handlebars.
  • Never carry anyone on your bike.
  • You should make your own decisions about safety—don’t do something just because your friends did it.
  • Wear a helmet at all times.

These rules are essential. Set an example for your children and follow these rules at all times.

Get the right equipment

Parents should make sure that their child’s bike fits properly. Buy a bike that is the right size, not large enough to “grow into.” Your child should be able to place his or her feet on the ground while seated, and with an inch or two of clearance while straddling the crossbar. Make sure that your child can grasp the hand brakes, if the bike has them, and can also apply sufficient force to stop the bike completely. Make sure they can be heard and seen—equip the bike with front and rear lights, reflectors for pedals and wheels, as well as a bell or horn. Of course, they’ll need a helmet, too. There’s more on helmets, and tips on how to get your children to actually wear their helmets later in this chapter.

Do regular safety checks

Every time your children ride their bike, you should do a safety check with them. First, see that the wheels, seat and handlebars are secure and move freely. Test the hand brakes. Make sure the tires are properly inflated. Make sure the brakes, chain and wheels are free of any dirt that might clog their operation, and that the chain is well-oiled and tight. Make sure that their clothing or shoelaces will not get caught in the chain—that could cause a fall.

Make sure they wear a helmet

Wearing a helmet can mean the difference between walking away from an accident with light injuries and death or debilitating injury. According to the CDC, wearing a helmet can cut brain injury by 88 percent, and face injury by 65 percent. Getting your kids and teens to wear their helmets can be challenging, however. Here’s some tips on how to get them to wear their helmets:

  • Start them early. Children who learn to wear a helmet when they get their first bike will wear their helmet as a habit throughout their life. If you didn’t start them early—don’t give up. It’s never too late to start being safe.
  • Let them pick their helmet. If your children choose their own helmets, they are less likely to tell you the helmet is uncool or feel like you are forcing them to wear it. Realize that if they want a more expensive helmet, it might be worth it to get them to actually wear it. You might want to try a fun trick at the bike store, too. Find a salesperson who you think your child might look up to—someone young and athletic—and ask them to show your child the helmet that they wear when they ride.
  • Be an example. Wear your helmet when you ride—your kids learn by watching you.
  • Encourage their friends to wear helmets. You can make peer pressure work for you if all of their friends wear helmets.
  • Make it a package deal. If they want to learn to ride a bike, they have to agree to wear the helmet at all times.
  • Explain why you want them to wear a helmet. Wearing a helmet should not seem like an arbitrary rule. Explain why they should wear a helmet as part of a larger conversation about bike safety. They should understand that you want them to wear a helmet because you value their safety, and not wearing a helmet can hurt them permanently or even cause death.
  • Point out helmets while watching sports. Bike racers like those in the Tour de France are required to wear helmets. Even players in other sports—football, baseball, hockey—have to protect their heads.
  • Reward them. Praise them or give them a special treat or privilege when they wear their helmet without being reminded.
  • Do not let them ride without a helmet, ever. Be consistent. There is no time or place when it’s safe to ride without a helmet, and if you are inconsistent, they will learn that wearing a helmet is optional. 
Joseph M. Ghabour
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Auto, Bus, Pedestrian, Motorcycle accident, medical malpractice and worker's compensation attorney.

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