Teaching Kids to Ride a Bike Safely

Here’s how to get tots, teens and in-betweens safely rolling along.
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Want to encourage a lifetime of fitness, fun and freedom? Bicycling offers all three and today’s young riders are safer than ever. Child fatalities from bike accidents have dropped 62 percent since 1999 according to U.S. government statistics. That doesn’t mean you should turn your child loose on two wheels without proper preparation. Bike-related accidents still send more than 240,000 kids to the emergency room each year with 26,000 of those having traumatic brain injuries. Here’s how to get tots, teens and in-betweens safely rolling along.

Early Years

Balancing Act

Training wheels and tricycles aren’t the only options for toddlers who want to ride. These days, more children are hopping on balance bikes — two-wheeled bikes without pedals — to get up to speed before graduating to a pedal bicycle. Balance bikes can help kids as young as 18 months build strength and confidence, and may help them learn to ride a traditional bike sooner.

“Balance bikes are really easy to use and there's no learning curve,” says Richard Giorgi, founder of Carrboro-based ReCYCLEry NC, a nonprofit teaching bicycle repair and maintenance, and helping community members earn bicycles. “Balance bikes are stable. The don't rock side to side or  tip over, and the child always has their feet on the ground.”

Pick a balance bike based on your child’s height (visit twowheelingtots.com for sizing guidance). Proper fit allows children to straddle the bike easily and keep both feet solidly on the ground. Giorgi recommends wooden balance bikes with solid wheels.

“It’s not about speed, it’s about learning and stability,” he says. “Heavier and more solid is OK. They’re not made to roll fast.”

Elementary Years

Ready, Set, Roll

While some children are happily riding a two-wheeled bike by first grade, others need more practice and support to feel confident on a bike. If your child is a reluctant rider, don’t give up, Giorgi says. Keep practice sessions fun and brief and let your child choose a helmet and bike she loves. Since safety slip-ups can cause major setbacks for hesitant kids, take a few minutes to make sure bike sessions are drama-free. Northwestern Medicine’s ThinkFirst Injury Prevention Program recommends tying shoelaces that could get caught in spokes, insisting on closed-toe shoes (no riding barefoot or in sandals), and teaching kids to ride single file — never side by side.

Hesitant children may feel more confident on a bike that fits well, and your child may outgrow his bike sooner than you think. By age 7 or 8, many children are ready to move to a 20-inch bicycle and hand the smaller 16-inch bike to a younger sibling or neighbor. A quick visit to a local bike shop can help match your child to the right size.

Teen Years

Noggin Nation

While children ages 10-14 have more bike-related emergency room visits than older teens, riders ages 15-19 account for more than half of bike-related deaths. The vast majority (88 percent) of teen bike fatalities are boys.

Since teens ride bikes with minimal adult supervision, it’s vital to instill sound helmet habits to keep them safe. Start with fit. Per ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation’s tips, bike helmets should fit snugly and sit flat on the head (like a baseball cap with the brim pointed straight out), not tilted back. Side straps should form a V-shape, with the bottom point directly beneath the earlobe. You should be able to fit one finger inside a buckled strap, but no more.

Riding after dark or on wet streets increases the risk of crash and injury. Ask teens to call for a ride if they’re out after dark or caught in the rain. Teens are old enough to take some responsibility for maintaining their bikes. Make wheel, frame, drivetrain and brake checks part of their regular bike-care routine for years of safe, two-wheeled fun.

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health and parenting journalist.