Bicycle Safety for the School-Age Child

American Academy of Pediatrics


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Mastering the art of riding a two-wheel bicycle gives most children a feeling of pride and newfound independence. Overnight they acquire a means of transportation to school or the playground.

Learning to ride a bicycle is like other motor skills--some children are ready earlier than others. Starting with training wheels is helpful but not always necessary to learn to coordinate watching, listening, pedaling, steering and balancing. Younger children may depend on training wheels until they are 5 or 6, and sometimes older. Use a bicycle helmet from the first time your child climbs on a bicycle. When your child feels ready to ride without training wheels (and he will let you know), add protective pads to cushion the falls that are inevitably part of the learning process.

However, riding a bicycle poses serious risks. Each year, about 400 children and adolescents die in the United States in bicycle accidents; another 400,000 end up in emergency rooms because of bicycle injuries.

The majority of bicycle-related deaths involve collisions between a bicycle and an automobile, often when the child darts out of a driveway or alley and strikes, or is struck by, a car. Or the bicyclist may be riding on the street against rather than with the flow of traffic. Most of these collisions are preventable if both parents and children learn the rules of the road, wear helmets and never ride at night.

Many more injuries happen when a child falls off a bicycle, which can cause everything from serious contusions to a broken arm to a severe head injury. These events often occur when the youngster rides too fast and loses control of the bike, rides on a rough surface, or is double riding or stunt riding. Some injuries are caused when the child's clothes become entangled in the bicycle mechanism.

Bicycle Safety Recommendations

To keep your youngster from ending up in an emergency room or a wheelchair, do not let her ride on the street or in traffic until she can ride confidently and adhere to the basic rules of the road. Make sure she understands and abides by safety guidelines like these:

  • Wear a bicycle helmet at all times.
    This first point is particularly important. Buy a helmet at the same time you purchase your child's first bicycle. Also encourage your child to use the same helmet for other types of play like roller-skating and skateboarding. The helmet should adhere to the safety standards of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the Snell Memorial Foundation. (Look for a sticker affixed to the helmet that says "Snell Approved" or "Meets ANSI Z90.4 Standard.") These helmets can absorb most of the impact of a crash, thus protecting the head from serious injury. (Studies show that helmets can reduce the risk of brain injury by up to 85 percent.) Remind your child to use the helmet's chin strap to keep it in place at all times. Make helmet use a firm rule; your child should not be riding a bike without using a helmet.

  • Stop at all points where a driveway, sidewalk, alley, or side street intersects with a street. Look both ways before proceeding.
  • Obey all traffic lights and signs. They are there for bicycles as well as automobiles.
  • When cycling with friends, ride in single file instead of riding abreast of one another and perhaps extending out into traffic. Use bicycle paths if at all possible.
  • Avoid all trick and double riding, such as a second child riding on the handlebars.
  • Do not ride at dusk or after dark.
  • Ride in the same direction as traffic.
  • Do not wear loose-fitting pants or other clothing that could become caught in the bicycle chain or other mechanism. Wear shoes and tie the laces.
  • Do not wear earphones while riding. Listening to music muffles the traffic sounds that help you ride safely.
  • If objects need to be carried, they should be placed in a backpack or a basket, allowing both hands to remain on the handlebars at all times. The backpack should not be so heavy that it affects the balance of the rider.
Choosing a Bicycle

Choose your child's bicycle carefully. If her bike is the wrong size for her, she is more likely to lose control and be injured. Although some parents tend to buy a bike that their youngster can "grow into," an oversized bike is dangerous.

When shopping for a bike with your child, first have her sit on the seat; while gripping the handlebars she should be able to put the balls of both feet on the ground. For a boy, make sure that he can place both of his feet flat on the ground when straddling the center bar, with about a 1-inch clearance between the bar and his crotch. Girls' bikes should be similarly sized. Although coaster brakes are more appropriate for a younger child, an older youngster who prefers hand brakes should try them out, making sure she can grasp them comfortably and apply enough pressure to bring the bike to a halt.

Teach your child to keep her bicycle in good condition. Have her check the seat and handlebar height, the brakes, and the tire inflation regularly.

Excerpted from "Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5-12" Bantam 1999

© Copyright 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics

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