Get a Handle on Bicycle Safety

With the weather getting nicer, parents have been pedaling lots of questions at me about bicycle safety. Let me see if I can gear up and answer some of those questions.

Every year more than 1,000 people die in bike accidents, half of those under 15 years old. More than 1 million children go to emergency rooms yearly for bike-related accidents. If you don’t want your child to be a bicycle accident injury statistic, here are a few preventive reminders.

Make sure your child’s bike fits properly. While you might consider buying a bike that’s a bit too big, expecting your child to grow into it, they could lose control of a bike that’s too big and hurt themselves. A bike is sized right when your child can sit on the seat with feet flat on the ground and the handlebar no higher than the shoulders.

Helmets are a must. A properly fitted helmet should meet standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. A helmet should sit level and not tilt forward or backward. It should not be worn on top of a baseball cap or other hat.  The straps should fit snugly under the chin and only one finger maximum should fit between the chin strap and the chin. A football helmet or ski helmet is not a substitute for a bike helmet.

Parents should set good examples and use helmets at all times. Kids should wear fluorescent – or at least bright colored – clothing to help motorists see them on the road. Pant legs shouldn't be too loose fitting, so they don't get caught in a bike chain. Make sure shoes can grip the bike pedals. Riding barefoot or wearing cleats, shoes with heels, or even flip flops can be a problem.

A well-maintained bike is a safe bike, so make sure it is tuned up at least once a season with tires inflated, chains oiled and cleaned, handlebar and seat adjusted for height, and brake pads checked for wear and tear. 

Kids also need to learn the rules of the road before they go off riding without you: ride with traffic, stop and look both ways before entering the street or an intersection, and use proper hand signals before turning.  

A newer rule is never to wear headphones while biking. Bikers should be able to hear everything around them, including car horns and everyone else on the road. 

The name of the game is to see and be seen, so night riding should be prohibited, even at dusk, since that is when most accidents occur due to poor visibility of the rider and the motorist. 

Hopefully tips like this will put the brakes on any concerns you have when it comes to keeping your child safe on a bicycle this summer. 

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids.