Rules of the Road: Teaching Your Child Bicycle Safety

By Eric Witt

Illustration – correct and incorrect fits for helmets at

It might be fun to get some cute kids to model some of the new helmet models and make a mini “fashion” page. “It’s cool to be safe.” Maybe even look for kid “celebs” like one of soca’s traveling soccer teams to do a group shot.

I’m a walking, talking testimony to the effectiveness of bicycle safety helmets. A few years ago I had a mountain biking accident that landed me in the emergency room where doctors picked gravel out of my legs and relocated my wrist preparatory to inserting pins to hold it in place permanently. I was in terrible pain and quite woozy because I’d fainted several times on the way to the hospital. I kept thinking what my wife was going to say. She was pregnant and almost two weeks overdue with our first child.

My biking buddies telephoned and left several messages assuring her I was “perfectly okay” but it would not be a bad idea if she could find the time to drop by the hospital. They left 10 messages to this effect in the 30 minutes between the accident and her return from work. This somewhat belied their efforts at appearing calm.

I was right to be worried about what she would say. In fact, the entire emergency room was worried and they took the precaution of calling her OB and alerting the maternity ward just in case she might be coming up soon. My wife, Ann, soon arrived at the hospital. She was a real a trouper and never blinked, jumping in and doing what needed to be done. She held my hand, helped nurses to remove gravel, and even scheduled my surgery and follow-up appointments. She was completely calm and efficient until she saw my helmet. It had big cracks in three places. Then, she gave me “the look” -- you all remember this from the fourth grade when you were caught playing with matches.

“How could you be going so fast?” she asked quietly. (How does she know these things?!) “You might have been killed. Look at what could have happened to your skull.” She said a lot more, but I think you get the idea. I was younger, and admittedly dumber when the accident occurred. Now, whenever the mishap comes up in conversation, we are quick to note that I at least had the good sense to be wearing a bicycle helmet.

Bicycle riding is an important part of childhood and now that my kids are old enough to enjoy this formative activity, I don’t want them to miss out on all the fun. But I do want them to be prepared. It should come as no surprise that the first thing a parent should do when teaching their children about bicycle safety is supply a safety helmet. This is according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

Every year about 800 people die in the U.S. from bicycle crashes. Most of them die from head injuries. Many survivors suffer brain damage, which can lead to learning disabilities or personality changes, robbing your child of the ability to think clearly. Hospital emergency room studies show that a bicycle safety helmet can prevent such devastating injuries about 85 percent of the time. So you don’t want your child riding a bike without one, even on your block, the sidewalk or a bike trail.

But safety is more than wearing a helmet. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute also advises parents to teach their children the top four rules of the road. Teaching these to your kids can take a few hours, but the results are well worth the effort!

The Safety Rules Can Protect Your Child

Rule 1.) Never ride out into a street without stopping first. Nearly one third of crashes involving cars and young cyclists occur when children ride down a driveway or from a sidewalk into the street and in front of a car. Kids must learn to stop, look left, look right, look left again and listen to be sure no cars are coming before entering a street. Look left that second time because cars coming from the left are on the child’s side of the street and are closer. Use your driveway or sidewalk to demonstrate this. Have your child practice the entry, looking left, right and left again. Make sure that they never assume that drivers see them just because your child sees the driver.

Rule 2.) Obey stop signs. Nearly one third of crashes involving cars and young cyclists happen when children ride through stop signs or red lights, into crossing traffic. Kids must learn to stop, look left, look right, and look left again at all stop signs, stop lights and intersections before crossing. Make sure they know the basics about stop signs and stop lights, and they always ride on the right side of the road, with same-going traffic. Then take your child to a controlled intersection and practice crossing safely. Explain that when riding in a group, each bicyclist must stop and make sure it is clear before crossing. Teach young children to walk their bikes through busy intersections. Remind them to obey traffic signals even if no one appears to be coming. While you are at it, explain one-way streets to them too.

Rule 3.) Children should check over their shoulder before swerving, turning or changing lanes. Nearly one third of car-bike crashes involving children occur when a child turns suddenly into the path of a car. Kids need to learn to look behind them before swerving, turning or changing lanes. The best place to practice this is in a quiet parking lot or playground. Stand behind them while they ride along a straight painted line. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute recommends parents hold up numbered cards and have their children practice looking back over their shoulder and calling out the number on the card without swerving off the painted line. Children should not ride their bikes on the street alone until they can master this skill. If they can handle it, teach them signaling too, but signaling is too complicated a skill for younger kids.

Rule 4.) Never follow another rider without applying the rules. Many fatalities occur when one rider blindly follows another. Running stop signs or red lights, riding out of driveways or zipping across lanes all seem natural to the second child in line because they are more focused on following the first rider than on the traffic or the rules. This will not be an easy lesson to absorb!

Now The Fun Part: Time to Ride and Practice the Rules

Gear: Along with a helmet, kids should use gloves to protect their hands and perhaps even skaters’ knee and elbow pads for the first rides. Adjust the bicycle for your child and be sure she can reach pedals, handle bars and brakes comfortably.

Brakes first! Show your kid how to stop the bike. Hold her up and gently move her forward as she uses the brakes until you are sure she knows how to stop.

Balance: Run alongside the bike, holding it up by the seat while using your other hand to guide the handlebars to show how you turn them to keep the bike upright.

Riding: Nobody learns without practice. Riding with your child is probably the best way to practice the rules. Go over the rules, then ride, stopping occasionally to review what your child has just done and praise her good performance. As with almost any other skill, practice is required to ingrain techniques. More than one session will be needed, but, again, the result is worth your time.

Warning! No Helmets on Playgrounds!

In February, 1999, the first strangulation incident in the U.S. involving a bike helmet on playground equipment occurred. Be sure to teach your child to remove their helmet before using playground equipment or climbing trees!

To learn more about bike safety, you can visit the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute’s website at

Eric loves riding bikes with his two daughters in their neighborhood and at Penn Park.


The Facts About Bike Injury

Bicycles are associated with more childhood injuries than any other consumer product except the automobile. More than 70 percent of children ages 5 to 14 (27.7 million) ride bicycles. This age group rides 50 percent more than the average bicyclist and accounts for approximately 21 percent of all bicycle-related deaths and nearly half of all bicycle-related injuries.

* In 2002, nearly 288,900 children ages 14 and under were treated in hospital emergency rooms for bicycle-related injuries. Nearly half (47 percent) of children ages 14 and under hospitalized for bicycle-related injuries are diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.

* Children can be seriously hurt from colliding with handlebars during a fall, even in low-speed bike crashes. Improper bicycle sizing may predispose a child to falling and expose more of his trunk to the handlebar.

* Nearly 60 percent of all childhood bicycle-related deaths occur on secondary roads. The typical bicycle crash with a motor vehicle occurs within one mile of the bicyclist’s home.

* Children ages 4 and under are more likely to be injured in non-street locations around the home (e.g., driveways, garages, yards) than are children ages 5 to 14.

* Children ages 14 and under are nearly four times more likely to be injured riding in non-daylight hours (e.g., at dawn, dusk or night) than during the daytime.

* Among children ages 14 and under, more than 80 percent of bicycle-related fatalities are associated with the bicyclist’s behavior, including riding into a street without stopping, turning left or swerving into traffic that is coming from behind, running a stop sign and riding against the flow of traffic.

* Riding without a bicycle helmet significantly increases the risk of sustaining a head injury in the event of a crash. Non-helmeted riders are 14 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than helmeted riders.

* Children ages 14 and under are five times more likely to be injured in a bicycle-related crash than older riders.

* More children ages 5 to 14 are seen in hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to biking than any other sport.

* Bicycle helmets have been shown to reduce the risk of head injury by as much as 85 percent and the risk of brain injury by as much as 88 percent. Bicycle helmets have also been shown to offer substantial protection to the forehead and midface.

* It is estimated that 75 percent of fatal head injuries among child bicyclists could be prevented with a bicycle helmet.

National SAFE KIDS Campaign (NSKC). Excerpted from Bicycle Injury Fact Sheet. Washington (DC): NSKC, 2004.

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