Childhood obesity and related health issues have become of grave concern in America in recent years, but studies have shown that fewer than half of American children who live close to school regularly walk or ride bikes. Instead, parents drive them, even if the distance is only a few blocks. Indeed, for kids ages 9 to 15 the percentage of walkers/riders has dropped from 90 percent in 1969 to 48 percent in 2004.
For many people, the reason behind this decline is safety. As a culture, we have become fearful of our children being snatched off the street or run down by reckless drivers. Yet the number of children injured or killed as passengers in cars far exceeds these other dangers. With some simple precautions we can allow our children to have the freedom to ride their bikes to school while still keeping them safe.
First and easiest, make sure your child is properly dressed for riding. A helmet that fits and is correctly adjusted is a must. It should be snug on her head and not slip around. Have her wear brightly colored clothing or a safety vest (like those worn by road crews) so that she is easy to see. Lots of reflectors, on the bike and on her clothing, are helpful if light is dim in the early morning or late afternoon.
Your child needs a bike that is in good repair and fits him properly. A bike that is too big or too small will be more difficult for a child to ride and therefore less safe. Before each riding season, have the brakes and gear shifters checked to ensure they work, and be sure your child knows how to operate them properly. A child’s bike should be cared for in the same manner as an adult’s. If you don’t know how to do this yourself, take it to a reputable bike shop for a tune up.
For older children, and it’s up to you to decide if your child is old enough, it may be enough to ensure that they know the route to and from school. Help them choose the safest route, ride it with them and talk about potential hazards as you ride. Decide if riding on the street or on the sidewalk is safest and make sure they understand their responsibilities either way. If they’re riding on the street, they should follow the same rules as cars. If they’re on the sidewalk, they should behave like pedestrians (walk bikes across crosswalks, etc.). If possible, find another student or a group for your child to ride with. A group will be more visible to motorists than an individual. Make sure you talk through all of your considerations and decisions with your children so that they can learn to make safe decisions for themselves.
If your child is too young to go alone, ride with him. If your schedule does not permit daily rides, consider seeing if your neighbors would be interested in trading escort duties so that a group of kids can ride together (not unlike trading carpooling). Some neighborhoods have organized “bicycle trains” in which two adults (one in front and one at the rear) ride with a group of kids to and from school. Everyone, even the adults, wears safety vests for visibility. The kids bring their own helmets and bike locks.
It’s natural to want to protect our children as much as possible, but at some time they need to be prepared to face the world with confidence and independence. Finding a way for our kids to ride to school is a perfect opportunity to teach them about bike safety as well as engender a healthy lifestyle.
Ride safe and have fun!