Teaching Children How to Bicycle Safely
There is an enormous effort being undertaken to exaggerate the dangers of bicycling on many websites which concentrate on children and safety. These sites offer little or no useful safety instruction but concentrate on fearmongering, making bicycling seem to be the most dangerous thing your child could be doing. False and misleading statistics are just par for the course. Anyone who remembers bicycling as a child should know better. You didn't go out and bash your head in or get run over by a car; you had lots of fun instead. One result of this fearmongering is that children seldom walk or bicycle to school nowadays, which is leading to more deaths in traffic accidents. Today, the greatest risk to children's health is not injury but lack of exercise. Nowadays, it is common for children to be overweight, and some even have high blood pressure and heart disease.
Nonetheless, some children do get killed or seriously injured while bicycling every year, and the cause is usually that they don't understand how to behave on a bicycle when automobiles are around. Most of these injuries and fatalities are easily preventable if the child understands how the traffic laws work. Children do have a higher risk of collision with motor vehicles than adults, and based on the kinds of accidents they have, we can say that they either didn't receive proper safety instruction or that they didn't follow it. Safety information appropriate to the age of the child plus some time and attention can go a long ways towards preventing sudden surprises and perhaps injury or worse.
The traffic laws apply to everything and everyone that travels on the road, shoulder, and sidewalks. These laws are designed to prevent collisions and injury. They work because they allow each person to predict what the other person or vehicle is going to do. For instance, will that pedestrian stop at the curb or will she step out onto the street in front of you? The answer should depend on whether she has the right-of-way or not, and both you and the pedestrian should understand under which conditions you have the right-of-way and under which conditions she possesses it. We actually have two sets of similar traffic laws, one applying to vehicles (which includes motorized vehicles, bicycles, horses with riders, and horses with wagons) and one applying to pedestrians. Pedestrian laws are different from vehicle laws because pedestrians move slowly and can stop and turn without moving forward while a vehicle can't. Two pedestrian rules, in particular, cause a lot of deaths among bike riders when bike riders mistakenly use these rules. The one pedestrian rule says that you should travel on the sidewalk, use the crosswalk at all times, and not walk in the street. However, bike riders traveling on sidewalks, sidepaths, and crosswalks are not visible to motorists, and they are traveling faster than pedestrians and unable to stop as quickly, thus they face a greater degree of risk from turning motorists than if they were traveling in the roadway. The second pedestrian rule says that, if you have to travel in the roadway, to walk facing traffic, so you can step out of the way. However, riding a bicycle in the wrong direction greatly increases the chance of a collision with an automobile. A study of traffic accidents demonstrate that most of the collisions involving bicycles occurred because the bike rider did not follow the traffic laws for vehicles.
There is a theory floating around now that it's impossible to teach children how to ride safely because their forebrains are not sufficiently developed. While it is true that children are prone to let good advice go in one ear and out the other, they are quite capable of understanding subjects much more complex and much less important to them than the traffic code. The forebrain theory does not explain why we see the exact same errors performed by adults who evidently do know how to drive a car safely. Somehow both adults and children tend to feel that whenever they are on bicycles then the traffic laws don't apply to them or that the pedestrian rules apply, but the truth is that it is much more important for a bike rider to obey the vehicle laws as the bike rider is the person most likely to be injured in a crash. The fact that a bicycle is smaller and slower than an automobile makes it all the more important for the operator to observe the law.
Although you would never guess so by visiting one of the many "child safety" websites, the specific advice given to children must vary according to their age and maturity. The youngest children are incapable of remembering advice and simply must be watched at all times. When children get to be kindergarten age, it is possible to teach them to remain on the sidewalk or in the yard with their play vehicles, so they won't get hurt by cars. When they reach the age when they can balance a bicycle, they are usually capable of learning enough instruction to safely ride on a residential street or lightly traveled country road (of course, you should secretly observe the child to make sure your rules are being obeyed). When they reach eleven years of age or so, they want to explore, and they are likely to want to ride their bicycles some distance. Bicycling provides a great opportunity for them to build up their young bodies, but these can be the most dangerous years as well unless they are taught how to behave on a bike. Finally, in their upper teens when old enough to drive a car, they are going to expect to be allowed to travel on busy roads. To do this safely, they will have to know as much about driving a bicycle as they will have to know in order to drive a car. With each age group, it is essential to give safety instructions appropriate for that age.
One mistake that schools and parents often make is to assume that it's not necessary to teach the traffic laws until the child is old enough to drive a car. Unfortunately, some children die in traffic on bicycles before then because they haven't learned the laws, and many children become bad drivers even after they are old enough to drive because they assume they know the law when they don't. In particular, people don't know the laws pertaining to pedestrian and bicycle travel, which they should have learned as children. To give an example of childish understanding carried into adulthood, I have been told on several occasions that a motor vehicle has the right-of-way over a bicycle because it is bigger and/or faster. Nowhere in the traffic code is there any mention of the bigger, faster vehicle having the right-of-way! If this were true, someone driving a car would have to surrender the right-of-way to anyone driving a truck. However, we do have a law -- which some people ignore -- which says that the slower vehicle must keep to the right to allow the faster vehicle to pass, and this law applies both to bicycles and to all other vehicles. But this is not a surrender of the right-of-way; no one has the right to pass unless it can be done safely.
While they are young, children must be taught that motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians follow certain rules called the traffic laws that make each other's behavior predictable. Children must be taught that they can get killed if they run across the street in front of a car (I remember the paddling I got!) or if they fail to stop for a stop sign when riding their bikes. They need to learn that if they obey the traffic laws on their bikes that they will be usually be safe, and they need to know that breaking the traffic laws can get them hurt. In addition, they also have to be warned to watch out for unsafe motorists. When they see or hear someone coming towards them who is speeding or swerving, they should immediately get off of the road.
One method I highly recommend with all ages of children is for you to spend a little time riding a bike with them. This will allow you to see what they are doing and how they are doing it, so you won't sound like a fool when you offer them advice. And at the same time, it will give you an opportunity to demonstrate what you are teaching them. One advantage of showing children how to behave is that it is sometimes easier than explaining, and it is probably more effective as well. Young children, especially, are proud to do the same thing as their daddy or mommy. Finally, riding with them give them an opportunity to demonstrate and to practice any new skills that you have taught them. However, teaching children how to ride obligates you to be on your best behavior, so you don't unintentionally teach them bad tricks!
Nonetheless, an adult can supply a lot of traffic information while driving a car. With a child in the passenger's seat, ask questions about what you are doing, such as asking at a stop sign or red light, "Why did I stop here?" Or, when yielding to another car, ask, "Why did I wait for that other car, and how did the driver know that I was going to wait?"
Another place to supply information is while taking a walk. Ask a young child why all the cars on one side of the street are moving in one direction and why all the cars on the opposite side of the street are moving in the opposite direction. Ask why the cars are stopping at a traffic light and why it is safe to cross the street there.
The way in which children are instructed is as important as what they are taught. Children are very likely to be resentful when they are preached at, patronized, humiliated, or forced to listen, and they are likely to discard good advice given in the wrong manner.
It's important for both you and the child to recognize that your rules will change with the circumstances and as they grow older and to develop guidelines that incorporate this understanding. To give an example, almost everyone acknowledges that it is safest for the youngest children to ride on the sidewalk and for adults to ride in the street. But where do we draw the line? The answer is that we can't. Children differ in their maturity, and streets differ also.
It's also very important that a child have a larger understanding that just "Follow these rules!" Unless the child understands why the rule is important, it is meaningless, and thus the child might get hurt in a situation where the usual rule does not apply or where a greater danger exists. For instance, at most intersections, if there is no traffic light or stop sign, it is safe to proceed because you have the right-of-way. However, we all know that on a few occasions these stop signs are missing, and certainly there is no stop sign at the end of a driveway, so a child must be taught to recognize the need to stop there too (not stopping at the end of the driveway before entering the street is the most common cause of children's getting hit by cars).
Here is what I would teach the children of the different age groups. Keep in mind that these ages are only approximate. These are not complete instructions. See my article on traveling in traffic and the various bicycle traffic handbooks listed in the right column.
Children Ages Two to Four
At this age, children cannot be depended upon to follow safety instructions as they lack sufficient experience; you have to watch them at all times. However, children are good listeners and excellent learners during this period of their lives, so it probably makes sense to point out traffic lights and signs and to explain how traffic works.
Children Ages Five and Six
Children at this age can learn to stay on the sidewalk and to cross streets only when the traffic light is green. I began walking to school on city streets when I was five, and once I learned, I never once crossed a street in the wrong place or against the light. They can also be trusted to play on the sidewalks.
Children Ages Six to Eleven
Children in this age group are old enough to learn to ride bicycles, and they should be taught to ride on the streets in residential areas. They should also be taught to always ride on the right side of the road, to pay attention to any approaching cars, to stop for traffic signs and lights, and to stop and look whenever entering a street from a minor road or driveway. With this age group, it's probably safest to teach them also to pull to the side of the road and to stop whenever a car is approaching from the rear, unless they are riding with you. It's also wise to warn them that some drivers speed or don't pay attention and that it makes sense to get off of the road whenever they see a reckless motorist. These children should not be allowed to ride their bikes at dusk, in the dark, or in the rain. Tell them, "If you can't get home from a friend's house because it turned dark or rainy, call me, and I will come and get you."
By the way, in obeying the traffic laws while riding their bikes, they will not only be safer from cars, but they will also be less likely to have collisions with each other. I moved to Alabama when I was ten, where I discovered that the other kids did not know the traffic laws. I taught them how to ride safely, and we have very few accidents of any kind as a result.
Children Ages Eleven to Fifteen
During these years, children change from being kids to being young adults. This is the most dangerous time for children, as they now have the desire to explore on their bicycles and yet are seldom given instruction. At some time during these years, they are going to want to leave their own neighborhoods to ride on roads with more traffic. If you refuse to let them ride out of their neighborhood, they will abandon cycling and lose valuable health benefits. You shouldn't give them too much freedom too quickly, but during these years, you should allow them gradually more discretion. By this time, the children should have a good understanding of the traffic code, and if at all possible, you should ride with them to let them demonstrate the laws to you. If you can't ride with them, see if they can ride with other adults or with a cycling club.
As their traffic sense should be good by now, they should be allowed to remain on the road when traffic is approaching from the rear, but they should be taught to watch for unsafe driving, reckless driving, and inattentive motorists.
If children in this age group are allowed to ride at dusk and after dark (when I was this age, we frequently rode after dark in my quiet neighborhood), their bikes should be equipped with lights front and rear and with reflectors. They should be given special cautions about reckless night drivers as well.
Children Ages Fifteen and Up
Now, they are old enough to be driving cars, either on their own or with an adult in the car. They are also old enough to expect to be able to ride a bicycle on any roads they consider safe. By this time, they should have both a good understanding of the traffic laws and practical experience in cycling with traffic.
If at this age, they are not allowed to travel on their bicycles as freely as they can in a car, they will give up bicycling. That's what I did; I was tired of being a child. Provided they know the traffic laws and have the proper equipment (including safe and suitable lights for travel after dark), they should be allowed this freedom. Certainly, these years are the hardest on a parent, as we know that their judgment is not as good as that of an adult, and they don't. These are the rebellious years as well, so most safety instruction should have been provided while they were younger. Still, they are old enough now to learn information on their own and to study books on cycling and/or the driver's manual for your state.
I have had the experience of helping my friends (when I was I child), my son, and my nephews to learn to ride safely. My son broke his collar bone in a cycling accident and had one other bad fall, but otherwise everyone got through childhood without injury. Especially, there were no collisions with motor vehicles. It's important for children to exercise and to develop their heart and lungs and bones, and cycling is an excellent exercise to help them do so. So encourage them to bicycle, but also ensure that they know how to ride safely, especially around cars.