In many schools, fewer hours are allotted to recess and physical education each year, but access to fresh air and exercise doesn’t have to end when classes start up again this fall. Bicycling is a fun and fitness-friendly method of transportation that, with a little planning and attention to details, could replace your carpool. Here’s some advice to get your student (or the whole family) rolling safely.
Can Your Child Ride?
Child development research by Safe Kids Worldwide indicates that children 10 and younger have difficulty judging the speed and distance of traffic. Coordination and strong bike-handling skills are not a substitute for the quick decision-making ability needed to ride on the road, so very young cyclists should always be accompanied by an adult.
Before allowing children to ride alone, assess their skills and judgment. Teach them to make eye contact with drivers, particularly before crossing intersections. This increases the likelihood that traffic will be stopped before they cross the street.
Do a Practice Ride
Before your child’s first solo trek, discuss the terrain and type of traffic he or she might encounter on the way to school. Ride the route together to point out details and identify any potential hazards. Do this even if you have ridden to school together in the past. A child who has always followed an adult has not had to rely on his or her own judgment and may not be confident of the route.
Obey traffic laws. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), bicycles on the roadway are, by law, vehicles with the same rights and responsibilities of motorized vehicles. Cyclists on the roadway, including children, should always ride with traffic, use signals and obey all traffic signs and rules.
Work with your child on safety rules of the road, but also to encourage “street smarts” regarding strangers and other dangers presented.
Also, consider when your child leaves for school. How long will it take her to get to school? Does your child have a device to let you know when he will be home? What days are afterschool activities? What happens when weather interrupts ride plans?
Whether your child is biking or walking, establish a routine from when she leaves the house until she comes home, along with a backup plan.
Require children to wear a properly fitting bike helmet every time they ride. Adults should do the same for safety and to serve as role models.
New helmets come with an adjuster ring or sizing pads. Use these to keep the helmet snug so it does not shift in any direction. Position the helmet low on the forehead, the width of one or two fingers above the eyebrows. Straps should not rub on the ears. To check whether the chin strap is tight enough, have your child open his mouth wide, like a yawn. If the strap is tight enough, yawning will tug the helmet down onto the head.
When in doubt, visit your local bicycle shop for a fitting. Helmet use is one of the most effective way to reduce bicycle-related fatalities.
The Right Fit
Provide your child with a bicycle that fits. A bike to “grow into” is difficult to control, will cause your child to swerve, and will reduce her ability to respond quickly to changing conditions. When standing over a bike with both feet flat on the ground, there should be two or more inches of clearance above the top tube. When seated, the rider should not have to stretch or lean forward dramatically to reach the handlebars. Leaning too heavily will restrict the ability to steer.
Maintain your child’s bike. If you are not sure how to do this, enroll in a bike maintenance class as a family so everyone develops these skills. Regularly check reflectors, brakes, chains and tires to ensure they are in good working order. Check the fit of your child’s helmet periodically, as well. Tighten straps that become loose and replace a helmet that has been outgrown or suffered damage.
DON’T FORGET! Dress appropriately. Avoid long or loose clothing that can drag or get caught while riding. Wear bright colors, such as orange or yellow, to be more visible to drivers. While messenger bags might be cool, they can slip, flop around and pull your child off balance. Instead, wear a backpack.
Heather Lee Leap is a freelance writer and mother of three girls. She is looking for more excuses to ride her bike.