With a bike comes freedom — and inescapable safety hazards. Let’s be honest: Like crossing the street, riding in a car, or buying sushi at a gas station, riding a bike comes with inherent risk. As long as there’s sand on the sides of roads, knees and elbows will be skinned.
But the good news is that the right equipment, the right safety apparel, and an understanding of the rules of the road — and why they matter for bicyclists, too — can minimize those risks and set the stage for years of enjoying life on two wheels.
There’s more good news: The state law requiring that children under the age of 16 wear a helmet has grown a generation of riders who recognize the importance of protecting one’s brain. Given the recent focus on the dangers of concussions, especially for developing brains, that’s an important step forward.
But a helmet can’t prevent all head injuries, and if you’re wearing a helmet incorrectly, it’s like you’re not wearing one at all.
Buying the bike
For many families, a bike is a big investment. But all bikes are not created equal, says Mark Vautour, manager at Landry’s Bicycles on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.
“A bike from any bike shop is going to be much higher quality and professionally assembled by a bicycle mechanic,” Vautour says. And, there’s “a big difference from the quality of parts we see from the department store,” he adds. “And in terms of longevity, usually the spokes aren’t made out of stainless steel, which means the spokes rust. So if you’re trying to get multiple children out of a bike, the quality of a purchase at a bike shop is just much better.”
Vautour acknowledges that as a bike shop manager, it sounds a bit self-serving that he recommends shopping and servicing at your local bike store rather than at a big box retailer. But mere common sense validates what he’s saying. The local bike shop staff knows bikes — that’s what they do. Associates at the local megamart might know what they’re doing. But, then again, they might be better at auto supplies. Or pet food. Or shoes.
For that first bicycle, or for kids on the cusp of a growth spurt, you might be tempted to buy a bike that’s a little big, thinking he or she will “grow into” it. But that’s a rookie mistake, and a potential safety hazard. Think about it: Would you attempt to drive a car if you couldn’t reach the pedals or the steering wheel?
And it’s not just reaching the pedals or getting your feet on the pavement without hurting yourself. A bike that’s too big is also harder to steer — and for younger riders, that’s an important safety issue.
“Many parents understandably try to size a bike for growth,” Vautour says. “But if a bike is too big, the kid simply won’t have fun on it because they’re afraid to ride it.”
So what’s the right size?
There are charts that correlate your child’s height and age with a standard bike size. (Pro tip: kids’ bikes measure wheel size; adult bikes measure the height of the frame.) Those charts often use the child’s inseam as a guideline, since distance from the seat to the ground is important. But every child is different, and one size does not fit all. So it’s important to bring him or her with you to the shop and let them try it on for size. (Make some other gift the birthday surprise.)
Conventional wisdom holds that children should be able to put the balls of their feet on the ground while seated, and be able to stand with one leg on the pedals and the other on the ground with no more than a slight lean to the bike. This is most important for first-time riders who need the confidence boost of being able to easily plant their feet on the ground; for older, more experienced riders, it’s not quite as critical.
Brakes are obviously important. And this is one area in which department store bikes can be less than desirable, Vautour says.
“Many times the quality is just not even close,” he notes. “The brakes are much harder to squeeze. And the rims are polished, so they make a lousy braking surface when the pads hit the rim. The combination of a plastic brake lever and a polished rim make the bike not nearly as safe.”
And when you realize that kids’ bikes are often heavier than their adult counterparts and apply Newton’s Second Law — force equals mass times acceleration — well, that’s cause for concern.
So what should brakes look like? For younger riders, skip hand brakes and go with a model that has coaster brakes, because not every kid has the hand strength to stop — or the understanding of physics that sends the rider of a suddenly stopped bike hurtling over the handlebars. For hand brakes, the pads should be aligned properly with the wheel and the lever should feel tight enough that it can stop the bike and its rider at speed.
Heads up for safety
There’s one piece of equipment you should absolutely insist upon for your child’s bike-riding experience and yours, too — a helmet.
At the risk of sounding preachy, there’s really no choice here: Buy your child a helmet and insist it be worn properly. It’s the law in Massachusetts for every rider ages 16 and younger. You can even look it up: Chapter 85, section 11B. After all: You can’t buy your child a new brain, so this is not the time or place to think about saving money.
For proper fit, experts agree that the front brim of the helmet should sit level on the head, and the chinstrap should be snug.
“If you palm the top of the helmet and you can move it around, it’s not tight enough,” says Beth Wolfe, an injury prevention coordinator and research assistant in the division of trauma and acute care surgery at Tufts Medical Center.
As for leaving the chinstrap unbuckled? Don’t allow it.
“An unbuckled helmet is the same as not wearing a helmet at all,” she adds.
Second — and this is important — helmets are not just for kids. Your children take their behavior cues from you, the grown-up in charge. Your consistent and proper use of a helmet while riding sets the example for safety and responsibility.
Now that we’ve got the bike and the helmet squared away, let’s take to the road.
Learning to fly
“It’s like getting back on a bicycle,” we say when we resume an activity we haven’t attempted in a while. But do you remember what it was like the first time you climbed aboard a bike? Maybe you were so thrilled that you forgot to be afraid of falling. Or perhaps you were so terrified that you didn’t realize that the grown-up in your life was no longer holding the seat as you pedaled away.
This is a good time to consider the basic premise of “Mindset” by Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck. Learning to ride a bike is a growth experience, one that will require effort and persistence as your child learns to master the required motor skills and put them all together. It’s a learned skill that requires practice — and it’s not an up- or down- vote on whether you’re a world-class athlete or just world-class clumsy.
You didn’t do it perfectly the first time, so don’t expect mastery of cycling overnight or criticize your child when that invariably doesn’t happen. It might take days or longer for your child to get past fears, learn to combine forward motion and balance, and figure out how to steer and stop. But it will happen.
And once you’re convinced that they can stop, start, steer, and follow the rules of the road, it’s time to hit the road. How do you do it safely?
Boston, with its wicked narrow streets, wicked heavy traffic, and wicked aggressive drivers, might seem like the last place to talk about bicycle safety. But not only does Wolfe study bike safety in the city, she’s also a dedicated rider who pedals around Boston. And she’s convinced that the benefits of life on two wheels far outweigh the risks — as long as you use some common sense and prevention.
“Biking is fantastic,” Wolfe says. “It’s a great, cheap way to have family gatherings, and the benefits greatly outweigh the negative safety aspects.”
Think about it: When you’re on your bike, good things are happening for the body and the brain. Major muscle groups are doing their thing as you pedal. They’re working in concert with your heart and lungs, while your equilibrium keeps you upright as you move forward. Neurons are firing, blood is pumping, your senses are continually scanning your surroundings for what fighter pilots call “situational awareness.” And if you read our story on the BOKS Kids physical activity program in the April issue (baystateparent.com/April-2016-1/The-Free-Physical-Activity-Program/), you know that exercise such as bicycling is good for children’s brains as well as their overall health.
If there’s one thing Wolfe has learned about bike safety in Boston, it’s that you have to be seen to be safe. That means wearing a reflective vest and having lights and reflectors on your helmet and your bike, day and night, so drivers realize that you’re there and on a bike. They’re not expensive; Wolfe said she found a package on eBay that came with reflectors, lights, and a Velcro vest for $30.
And being seen doesn’t just mean being bright at night; it means creating enough reflection that the motorist can’t miss you and knows where you are. (For example, Wolfe says she has seen an increase in “doorings” in greater Boston — when a driver opens the door right in front of the oncoming cyclist, who doesn’t have time to stop.)
But it also means operating your bike in ways that drivers and pedestrians expect — and that means following all of the rules of the road. Wolfe says some of the more serious injuries she has seen involve cyclists hitting pedestrians who weren’t expecting the cyclist to run a red light, or ride the wrong way down a one-way street.
“That can be very serious for the cyclist and the pedestrian both,” Wolfe said. “It’s not like a car where you have a big metal cage to protect you.”
The new danger: distracted riding
There’s another dangerous trend Wolfe has been seeing among older kids and adults – an uptick in accidents involving “distracted riding.” And we’re not just talking about wearing headphones while riding. This refers to those trying to pilot a bike with one hand (or no hands) and focusing their attention on dialing a phone, checking email, or texting a friend.
And that’s not all.
“We saw people eating breakfast, eating lunch, carrying coffee, carrying groceries,” she says. “We saw someone carrying a 6-foot-tall lamp — it looked like they were jousting.”
Texting while riding is obviously foolish and dangerous, but Wolfe is particularly concerned about riders wearing earbuds to listen to music or talk on the phone via Bluetooth, or wearing sound-canceling headphones that don’t allow external noise to get through.
“When you have auditory distraction like that, you can’t hear electric cars that are often quiet, especially most of the taxis around here,” she says. “So how can you protect yourself and other people? Or someone’s trying to honk at you, or someone’s trying to pass you safely, but yet you can’t hear them? It’s a big safety problem.”
As is the case with wearing a helmet, Wolfe believes the best course of action for parents is to model safe behavior.
“I’m a huge proponent of leading by example,” she says. “If a parent is texting, talking, answering emails, or listening to music while they’re bike riding, their child is probably going to do the same. I think it goes back to accountability...leading by example is a huge thing.”