Bicycling is a wonderful activity for children and families. Surveys have shown that it is one of the most popular sports in the United States, and more than three-quarters of all children between the ages of 5 and 14 ride bicycles. Yet, as with any sport, bicycling carries a risk of injury, so proper safety skills and equipment are essential for all children and their parents before heading out onto the road.
Every year, bicycle-related accidents result in more than 500,000 injuries and approximately 784 deaths in the United States. The highest rate of injuries occurs among boys ages 5 to 14, and in fact, 24% of bicycle-related deaths are seen among children younger than the age of 16.
Head injuries are one of the most common types of life-threatening injuries for children under 15, accounting for approximately 37% of injuries. Contusions (bruises) and concussions (injury to the brain with some change in consciousness; the change may range from slight to severe) are common head injuries sustained in bicycle accidents. Other common sites of injury include the neck and back; knees and ankles; and mouth, teeth and eyes. Fractures of bones also occur in a high percentage of cases.
Since bicycling can pose such a high injury risk to children, the role of parents in ensuring safety is critical. Some simple strategies to help improve your child’s safety and decrease the risk of injury are:
- Insist that your child (and you, for that matter) wear an appropriately fitted bicycle helmet at all times.
- Ensure that your child has a properly fitting bicycle.
- Participate in skills training programs to improve riding safety.
- Supervise all of your child’s riding activities.
- Become a role model for safety skills.
By far the most important safety measure is the use of a properly fitting bicycle helmet every time you or your child rides a bicycle. Several studies have shown an 85 percent reduction in serious head injuries with the use of helmets, and most states now require helmet use.
All helmets made in the United States today must meet standards set by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. The most important, yet most time-consuming part of obtaining a helmet is making sure that the helmet fits properly. One that is too big or too loose will not provide the appropriate protection upon impact. A helmet needs to be worn in a level position, with the chin straps snug enough so that the helmet does not move out of place when pushed from the side, front or back. Many helmets come with foam fitting pads of various sizes that can be placed inside the helmet and adjusted as the child’s head grows.
For many children, wearing (or not wearing) a helmet is more about fashion than about safety. This is especially true in junior-high-school-aged children, so if you can get your child into the routine of always wearing a helmet at a young age, he may be more willing to use it all the time as he gets older. Children sometimes resist wearing a helmet because they think it does not look good on them, or they think it is not "cool." If your child does not want to wear a helmet, you should discuss with him the reasons. Allowing your child to pick out his own helmet may remove some of these difficulties. Finally, no child will wear a helmet if he does not see others around him using helmets as well. This is especially true of his own parents or other adult role models. While selecting a helmet for your child, be sure that you have a well-fitted helmet for yourself as well.
After the properly fitting helmet is strapped on and the bicycle is checked for any mechanical problems, much of safety while riding depends on following the rules of the road. Be sure to go over the rules with your children when they are learning to ride, and review them periodically. Riding on the right side of the road and using hand signals appropriately may be the difference between avoiding an accident and causing one. Many communities also have set aside bike lanes for riding, and if these are available, encourage your child to use them instead of a busy street.
There are numerous valuable resources available on the Internet for further information about bicycle safety. These include the following:
American Academy of Pediatrics
National Bicycle Safety Network
Consumer Products Safety Commission