Spring weather is fast approaching and I thought this might be a good time of year to discuss spring and summer safety issues. I am starting the series with a discussion about bike safety.
After congenital anomalies and issues surrounding birth, injuries are the leading cause of death for children up to age 14. Therefore, it is critical as parents to assure that we are doing everything we can to keep our children safe, while allowing them to have fun. Biking is a higher risk activity because of the often close proximity to motor vehicles and the relative speeds one can obtain while biking. Learning to ride a bike well and follow the rules of the road will go a long way in this regard.
The first step in bike safety is showing your child that you take it seriously. Wearing a helmet every time they get on a bike is the most important thing they can do to keep safe. I recommend starting to wear a helmet the first time they get on a tricycle or balance bike (or scooter). This reinforces that whenever they are using their wheeled device, they need to be safe. The other part of this is modeling good behavior. Adults should always wear a helmet when riding their bikes as well. If your child sees you doing it, he/she is more likely to comply without a fuss. And if you start early, your child is more likely to continue wearing a helmet into their adolescent and teen years.
The next step is getting your child to ride a bike well. I am not a huge fan of training wheels, because it delays learning balance skills. Children come to rely on the training wheels and often ride slanted because of this. They are often fearful to remove the wheels because they don’t want to fall. If you do use training wheels, it is helpful to slowly raise them up so the child relies more and more on their own balance. However, this can often backfire and lead to a reluctance to ride.
I really like learning pedaling skills on a tricycle, which provides an easy platform to get down the pedaling motion. Trikes with a parent handle to help push can be great to save your back and help them learn the rotational motion. And I am a huge fan of using a balance bike to learn balancing. If you aren’t familiar, a balance bike is a small bicycle without pedals. Kids can learn to use these at a very young age as a “push bike” and as they gain in motor skills and confidence, start to get enough speed to coast on them with their feet up.
Once they have some balance down and can do the pedaling motion, they are ready to try a bike. This is usually around age 4 or 5. The easiest way to teach your child to ride a bike is to find a gently sloping grassy hill. Take your child to the top (with a helmet on, of course) and have them coast down the hill without pedaling. The slope will provide the speed they need to balance and the grass will help with a soft landing. You can also have a parent stand at the bottom of the hill to catch the child. If your child is fearful of falling, you can add elbow and knee pads for protection against bumps and bruises. The hill is a really nice way to go – you don’t have to chase the child down the street, trying to help them keep their balance on flat ground.
Once they are confident with the balance, have them start pedaling while going down the hill. There won’t be any resistance to the pedaling, so now they are balancing and pedaling without problem. Once they are confident with that, it’s time to let them ride in a safe environment, like a park, a basketball court or a cul-de-sac that’s blocked off with some high visibility cones.
The third step is to teach how to brake. This is more complicated than it sounds. Most first bikes have pedal brakes which are easier for kids to use than hand brakes and provide stronger stopping power. The disadvantage is that it’s easy to inadvertently brake. You need to teach your child which way to push to stop the bike. Make it a game – see who can leave the longest skid mark on the pavement. It’s also very important that they can brake in an emergency. While riding with your child, call out randomly for them to stop, to simulate an emergent brake. When they can do this confidently and accurately is when you can start traveling on sidewalks near residential traffic.
The final step is to teach the rules of the road. This is the most complicated part of bike safety and kids don’t generally learn it well until at least age six or seven. And even then, they need constant vigilance around motor vehicles and roads. Most importantly, children need to learn to be safe around cars. Although bikes have as much right to the road as cars do, children on bikes are very hard to see and should always give way to a motor vehicle. Until they are old enough to ride on the road safely, children should learn the same rules as pedestrians. They should be taught to stop at corners and walk their bikes across intersections when it is safe. Teach them to make eye contact with a driver before crossing in front of a vehicle, even when it is their turn to go. They should only be on sidewalks next to traffic with adult supervision.
When they are old enough to ride on the road, they should be taught to ride on the right hand side, near the shoulder. They need to learn proper hand signals for turning. And most importantly, they need to be taught to not make sudden, unpredictable movements – same as driving a car. High visibility clothing – like neon green vests – are fantastic to make sure drivers can see you while on the road.
If you follow this progression, you’re children should be well equipped to ride their bikes safely and to still have fun!