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Teach Your Child Well:
Bicycle Safety Issues





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by David Mozer

Bicycling is fun, it helps us keep fit, and it gives us mobility.  It also helps kids develop judgment and self-confidence, safe practices and lifelong skills.  The most import part of having fun cycling is to learn to do it safely.  The attitudes parents instill in their child now will help to determine how he or she will ride for years to come.  If parents work at it from the beginning, if they teach their child as if his or her life depends on these lessons -- which it does -- then they will feel more confident when their kids  rides down the road.

The basic set of rules for beginning bicyclist are:
1. No playing in the road.
2. No riding on busy streets.
3. Stop and look before entering a roadway to cross or for any other reason.
4. Bicycle ride with traffic regardless of whether it is on the road, on the shoulder or on a sidewalk. [In situations where the infrastructure or other factors force you to ride toward traffic, adjacent to it, it is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT that you approach every intersection (road, alley, driveway, parking lot access, etc) with extreme caution and prepared to stop instantly.]
5. Stop for all stop signs and obey all other traffic signs and signals.
6. Make your own decisions (don't do something just because a frie
7. Keep at least one hand on the handlebars at all times -- two is better.
8. No riding at night -- even in broad daylight bright cloths are good.
9. Even if you are doing everything else safely and right (please do), it is a good idea, and sometime the law, to wear a bicycle helmet. Bicycle gloves are a second good piece of personal protective equipment.

The specific safety issue for children change dramatically by age and the kind of environment they are riding in.  In general terms the sequence is about like this:

  • Child first learn to bicycle at obstacle-free park, courts (basketball or tennis), parking lot or driveway.  The are taught balance, steering and pedaling. They need to keep their speed commensurate with their skills. See Teaching / Learning to Bike
  • Next children starts to leave the park, court or driveway, and use walkways, sidewalks and pavement (Brit). Here he or she starts to encounter pedestrians and hazards like cracks in the pavement, glass, debris, poles, benches, etc, and possibly other vehicles. Cyclist start to speed up.  It needs to be reinforced that they need to keep control of the bike and THINK about avoiding hazards and obstacles. Most bicycle accidents don't involve motor vehicles.  Most bike accidents, especially for kids, are falls, collisions with stationary objects, collisions with pedestrians or collisions with other bikes.
  • Child will then gets to corner and want to cross the street, or child starts to ride into the road at some other point (i.e. end of a driveway).  Child needs the discipline to ALWAYS stop and look both ways for moving vehicle, and wait for the light if appropriate.  Child are poor at judging speed and "closing distance".  They should wait for all vehicles to stop or to pass before crossing. Four lane roads are particularly treacherous because a vehicle in a near lane can block the view of a vehicle in lanes behind it.  While accidents with cars are statistically small, procedures for entering the environment of motor vehicles merit extra scrutiny and practice for beginning cyclists.
  • Some kids will be lucky enough to have access to zero traffic cul-de-sacs and severely "traffic calmed" streets, but even in these situations the rules-of-the road should be introduced and followed and parents need to be weary because motorist can't be trusted to share the space.
  • Even while riding on the sidewalk and through crosswalks, it is SAFEST to ride WITH traffic.  (This also reinforces patterns they will need when the transitions to riding in the street.)  Riding with traffic, even on a sidewalk and crosswalk, is safest because drivers crossing the sidewalk or crosswalk, from a driveway, alley, parking lot or side street, will look hardest (in drive on the right countries) to the NEAR LEFT lanes and FAR RIGHT lanes.  Hopefully they will see a bicyclist coming from the left on the sidewalk adjacent to the near left lane.  Too often they won't see a cyclists on the near right sidewalk when they are look off to the far right lane.  If the driver plans to turn right they may hardly even look left.  The problem is not so acute for pedestrians because they generally don't travel as fast and they can stop almost instantly if they see a car is not going to yield -- but pedestrians approaching from the left are more at peril as well and get clobbered too often as well.  [In drive on the left countries all the same holds true, but all the lefts and rights are reversed!]  When riding on the sidewalk it is important to stop or be prepared to stop (depending upon the age and sightlines) at all driveways, alleys, and parking lot ramps, especially if you are riding "the wrong way."

From our Inbox:
"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, for emphasizing riding with traffic whether on sidewalks or roadways. Four years ago I hit a fifteen year old boy at an intersection with my car. I was making a right turn and he was riding down a steep hill against traffic on the sidewalk. A witness from across the street told the police it looked like the boy was trying to beat the light and that I looked left-right-left then crept into my turn. I never saw him (he was blocked from my vision by a light post) until he bounced off my hood. He is alive today because I always come to a complete stop at that intersection since it is dangerous. If I had coasted through on the turn he would have been seriously injured. I will always remember the look on his face as my car struck him. You cannot overemphasize riding on the correct side of the street!"

  • The next progression for  the child to begin to ride in the street.   From the first moment and forever, they should ride with traffic.  Before age ten children still need to be supervised when they bicycle.  Few kids younger than ten can really understand traffic.  They can be taught certain specific skills but they will have trouble understanding concepts like "right-of-way."
  • Sometimes soon, sometimes later, the young cyclist will get to an intersection.  As a default and certainly where there is a stop sign, they need to stop, regardless of what is happening, scan both directions for traffic, wait for any cross traffic to clear and then proceed when safe.  It is import that everyone make their own decisions -- no follow the leader through intersections.
  • As young cyclists advance in skills and confidence the next behavior that gets them in trouble is turning without warning (or looking).  Until kids are old enough to understand traffic they should be taught to walk across roads.  To prepare them to make turns across lanes, they need to be taught to scan to the rear for traffic and signal before turning.

An article that takes this to the next level is How Not To Get Hit By A Car by Michael Bluejay

For ordinary bicycling learning safety is more important than equipment.  Good safety knowledge can keep you safe on a bad bike, but lack of knowledge won't keep you safe on a good bike. Of coarse it is important that the bike fits, it has brakes, and everything be in good repair -- especially the brakes, so that slowing down and stopping can be controlled by you!

Helmets are the next most important piece of equipment. Bicycle helmets don't do anything to avoid crashes -- which is the real objective -- but they can be important in reducing head injuries if one should occur.  Head injuries have a high potential for being sever and can be life threatening -- they are the most common cause of death for bicyclists. Given the grave potential consequences and the cost of prevention, helmet are excellent value.  The highest rate of bike-related head injuries is among boys 10-14, but helmets are a good idea for cyclist of all ages and genders.  To work properly helmets need to fit properly!  For more information click to helmets.

Probably the most common, unintended, part of the body to impact the ground is the palm of the hand.  To reduce these injuries, leather palmed cycling gloves are available, but to a lesser extent in kid sizes.

Beyond this, because of the injury patterns for bicycle accidents, there is not a lot of emphasis on other protective gear for bicycling.  The exceptions are for people doing BMX racing, stunt riding or off-road trials riding in rocky or brushy country.

Group Bicycle Riding Safety and Etiquette (pdf format)

IBF's Bicycle / Safety / Sustainability Bibliography / Reading List


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The International Bicycle Fund is an independent, non-profit organization. Its primary purpose is to promote bicycle transportation. Most IBF projects and activities fall into one of  four categories: planning and engineering, safety education, economic development assistance and promoting international understanding. IBF's objective is to create a sustainable, people-friendly environment by creating opportunities of the highest practicable quality for bicycle transportation. IBF is funded by private donation. Contributions are always welcome and are U.S. tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

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