The statistics are scary: Bicycle accidents involving children under age 15 accounted for 59 percent of all emergency room visits in 2001; bike accidents send more than 500,000 people to the emergency room and kill more than 700 each year in the United States.
But summer’s coming and nothing spells freedom to a kid like the ability to hop on a bike. What we parents want to know is: How can we ensure the experience is safe as well as fun?
Three ways, safety experts say: Be a good role model, buy a good bike and make sure your child is wearing a helmet.
“Teach the children to wear their helmets. Hands down that would be the No. 1 safety tip,” says Craig Raborn, program manager for technical information at the North Carolina-based Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center.
But, as most parents know, that’s easier with younger children than older ones who are more interested in fashion trends than helmet safety.
There is a solution, says local cycling safety instructor Bob Zitello—employ the “use it or lose it” strategy: Catch them one time without a helmet and lock the bike in an area where they can see it as they go in and out of the door. “That worked for my son,” Zitello says.
Zitello also advises parents to teach safe cycling through example. “When [parents] go out riding with their kids, they should wear a helmet,” he says. “They should follow the rules of the road. You ride a bike on the right just like you drive a car.”
The area of most concern, Zitello adds, is pulling out of the driveway. “Kids don’t look,” he says. “They don’t stop at the end of the driveway. They just swing out.”
Raborn also recommends bicycle safety classes, such as those offered by the League of American Cyclists. Park districts and schools often offer classes as well.
In addition to learning how to ride safely, children should also have bikes that fit properly. “Parents have a tendency to buy a bike that is too large, saying that the kid will grow into it,” Zitello explains. “What happens is the bike becomes unwieldy for the child to handle when they initially get it—which means poor stopping and rough starting.”
Zitello also advises getting the bike and regular maintenance from a reputable dealer and replacing kids’ bikes every two to three years.
While bicycling accident statistics might unnerve some parents, Raborn says cycling can be safe. He hopes those numbers will remind parents to teach bike safety to their kids.
“We don’t want the reaction to be, ‘stop riding,’ ” he says. “We want the reaction to be, ‘learn how to ride safely.’ ” Ann Scanlan
Parents and kids can practice their bike safety skills at the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s Bike the Drive event, held Sunday, May 29 on Lake Shore Drive. From 5:30 to 9:30 a.m., only bikes are allowed on the road. The route is set up for 15- or 30-mile rides, but there are many turn-arounds if you want to go a shorter distance. A festival and pancake breakfast will follow, 8 to 11:30 a.m. Cost: $35 adults, $30 federation members, $5 kids. Registration required. Call (312) 427-3325 or visit www.bikethedrive.org for more information.