For many children, learning to ride a bicycle is an important sign of growing up, gaining mobility and becoming independent. From age 3 to adolescence, a child's development can be marked by his progress in learning to ride a bike—starting by riding a tricycle, progressing to a two-wheel bike with training wheels, removing the training wheels and riding on two wheels at a park and finally riding on the street.
Bike riding is good for children's physical development, health and self-esteem. It's also a great activity for the whole family to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors together.
Unfortunately, children frequently get injured on bicycles because of their limited judgment, skills and strength. Collisions and falls off a bike can lead to facial cuts, knocked out teeth, broken arms and legs, concussions and, rarely, even death. Nearly 300,000 children under age 15 are treated in emergency rooms nationwide each year and more than 100 children die in bicycle crashes. The most serious injuries tend to occur when children ride on unsafe bicycles, without helmets and in unsafe locations.
Here are tips for making bike riding safer:1. Wait until your child is old enough to ride safely:
Children are usually ready to learn to ride a two-wheel bicycle between 5 and 8 years of age. Watch for your child's interest and general coordination.
2. Make sure your child has safe equipment:
Check that the equipment is certified for safety and not on the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) recall list (check www.cpsc.gov).
Choosing a safe bicycle:
Choosing a safe helmet:
Take your child with you when you shop for bikes so she can try them out.
Start with a bike with coaster (foot) brakes until your child is older and more experienced for hand brakes.
Buy a bike that is the right size, not one your child has to grow into. If the bike is too big, your child won't have the coordination to ride it safely.
Sitting on the seat with hands on the handlebars, your child should be able to place the balls of both feet on the ground.
Straddling the center bar, your child should be able to stand with both feet flat on the ground with about a 1-inch clearance between the crotch and the bar.
Avoid slippery plastic pedals. Look instead for rubber-treated pedals or metal pedals with serrated edges.
Make sure the foot and/or hand brakes work well.
3. Find safe places for your child to learn to ride:
Check the package to make sure the helmet is certified by CPSC, ASTM or Snell Memorial Foundation. Hard-shell and soft-shell helmets are both safety-approved. The main difference is that hard shells tend to be sturdier and light shells are lighter and cooler.
Make sure the helmet fits well. A trained salesperson can help. It should be worn level on the head, covering the forehead, not tipped forwards or backwards. When the strap is securely fastened under the child's chin, you should not be able to move the helmet in any direction. If needed, the helmet's sizing pads can help improve the fit.
Take your child to playgrounds and parks where he can ride on smooth pavement, far away from cars. Avoid sand, gravel and uneven pavement, which can cause falls. Don't let your child ride on driveways, in parking lots, or on the street; and don't allow riding after dark, when visibility is poor.
4. Teach your children bicycle safety rules:
5. Keep the bicycle well-maintained:
- Always wear a helmet.
Helmets reduce the risk of head injury—the leading cause of death in bike crashes—by as much as 85 percent. Make sure your child wears the helmet correctly positioned on her head with straps secured under her chin. Many children think they don't need to wear the helmet when riding close to home, but this is where most bike accidents occur, and it's crucial to wear it no matter how far the ride.
- Wear safe clothes.
Don't wear loose pants or long coats that can get caught in the bike chain or wheels. Wear sneakers or flat shoes—not barefoot, sandals, high heels or cleats—to best grip the pedals.
- Have your children ride on sidewalks and paths until they are 10 and able to ride safely on street.
They must be able to ride straight on the edge of the road without swerving into the street, and follow traffic signals and stop signs.
- When riding on the street, follow the rules of the road for all vehicles.
Ride on the far right-hand side of the road, in the same direction as the cars. Use bike lanes or designated bike routes wherever possible. Follow the traffic signals and stop at stop signs. Cross only at intersections. Before entering or crossing a street, look left, right and left again to avoid traffic and pedestrians. Use hand signals when turning and stopping. In busy intersections, walk the bike across using the crosswalk and following traffic signals. Don't wear headphones because you may not be able to hear a car horn.
- Avoid riding in the dark.
Children are nearly four times as likely to be injured riding at night, dawn and dusk. If an older child needs to ride in the dark, make sure he has reflectors on his bicycle, helmet and clothes.
Regularly check the following:
Store the bicycle indoors when not in use, since moisture can cause rust and weaken metal parts.
Refer to the owner's manual for the manufacturer's maintenance recommendations.
The seat, handlebars, and wheels fit tightly.
The chain is oiled.
The brakes work well and aren't sticking.
The tires are filled with air to the right pressure.
The frame, fork, spindles and other parts aren't cracked.
Any missing, damaged or worn parts are replaced.
If major work is needed, have an experienced repair technician do it.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician
Parenting advice is given as a suggestion only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider.