Are you toying with the idea of making bikes part of your family's daily routine? Maybe you're thinking of riding to school with your child for their first time? Taking something that has previously only been used for play and relying on it as a mode of transport involves a certain amount of preparation in order to stay safe.
We've taken a closer look at how best to prepare your child for riding on the roads, highlighting any potential hazards that your child should be aware of, and unpicking the ways in which adults and kids perceive traffic differently. What else? Keep reading for a wealth of practical tips and tricks for staying safe on the roads.
Hardware: Your bike and equipment are the first step to safety.
- Always do a quick check of the bike before setting off. Are all the screws, bolts and quick-releases done up tightly? Do the tyres have enough air? Are the brakes and lights fully functioning?
In this article and accompanying step-by-step video, our mechanic Tim highlights the bits of your bike that need checking most regularly.
- Never forget that all-important helmet! Head injuries are one of the most common after-effects when crashing on a bike. While people are legally obliged to wear helmets up to age of 12 years old in Austria, helmets are a sensible idea whatever your age or location – the key thing is finding one that fits perfectly.
- Check that your child's saddle is at the correct height so that their feet reach the floor with ease.
- As children are smaller than adults and therefore lower on their bikes, it's important that they're as visible as possible while on the roads – brightly coloured clothing helps here. In addition to having bike lights as required by law, we also recommend adding safety reflectors to their helmet and clothing. In many countries, bikes legally have to be fitted with a bell, which can provide your child with an easy way of drawing attention to themselves if needed.
Remind yourself of the traffic regulations that apply in your country. It'll explain what constitutes a roadworthy bike, when (and in what circumstances) your child is permitted to ride unaccompanied on public roads, as well as many other useful things.
Does your child know the most important road signs and rules?
To have as safe a ride as possible, it's essential that your child is not just familiar with the rules of the road, the meaning of various hand signals and road signs, as well as how to act in traffic, but actively trains these skills. They should know how to act in the following situations:
- Important road signs
Stop and right-of-way signs are the obvious ones that your child will soon recognise and understand.
- What to do at a zebra crossing
Pedestrians have priority. It's the responsibility of cyclists to slow down in time and stop if necessary.
- Avoiding obstacles or overtaking other road users
Skirt carefully around obstacles such as roadworks and parked cars, and considerately overtake slower cyclists. Your child will need to be aware of a) oncoming traffic and b) leaving sufficient space around parked cars just in case a door opens.
- Cycling on shared-use paths
Give pedestrians space and slow down to pass. Take a wide berth around slower riders as you and your child overtake them.
How best to accompany your child?
The answer to this really depends on where they are going to be riding and if it's a route that they are already familiar with.
- Dedicated bike paths of a decent width are ideal for riding alongside your child. But riding side-by-side isn't always permitted, so familiarise yourself with the rules in your country.
- If there happens to be two responsible adults on your ride, get your child to ride in the middle with one adult in front and one behind. Your child will take cues from the rider ahead of them, while the second adult will be able to keep an eye on the child. If they're still building up their riding skills, having two adults is a big help.
- Riding alone with your child? Let them ride in front of you on familiar routes with you sticking close to their wheel so that you can advise them if necessary and make sure everything is going well. When riding on unfamiliar or busy roads, it's best if you ride in front.
Is your child able to spot hazards?
If you're a keen cyclist yourself, you'll no doubt be in a position to plan a route for you and your child that is as safe and stress-free as possible. There's usually more than one way to reach your destination, so if you've identified any risks on an earlier occasion then you can plan accordingly. Avoid major junctions and roads that are prone to heavy traffic. Taking a little detour can make your route not just safer, but also more enjoyable.
Pick a short or familiar journey, like the school run, as an introduction to riding a bike on the road. Integrating a daily ride to and from school into your family's lifestyle is a great way to help your child stay fit and healthy, and improve their concentration throughout the school day.
Even with the best preparation and schooling, it's impossible to plan for every eventuality, so it's important that your child learns how to spot hazards and knows what to do when they come across them. Familiarise them with the following scenarios and awareness of how traffic behaves in different situations.
Your child needs to be certain that it is safe to cross. Start by slowing down until your child is close enough to the junction to assess the flow of traffic. Then stop and let the flow of cars pass by. Make sure the pedals are positioned so it'll be easy to push off. All clear? Okay, off they go.
For those riding in countries with right-hand traffic, pay attention to vehicles turning right! Never presume that a driver can see cyclists. Watch out for signs telling you that a driver intends to turn, such as flashing indicators and a reduction in speed. Try to make eye contact with the driver if possible and give priority to other vehicles on the road if there is any doubt.
- EXITS, ENTRANCES AND DRIVEWAYS
Poor visibility is often an issue with exits and entrances, especially where children are concerned owing to their size. Bear this in mind and remind your child to slow down as they approach an exit or entrance until they are sure they have a good view. Eye contact is a good sign, and be prepared to stop if necessary. If the coast is clear, your child can carry on pedalling.
- PARKED CARS AND CAR DOORS
Even parked cars can be a major hazard as you can never predict when a car door might be opened directly in front of a coming cyclist. Make sure that your child maintains a distance of at least 1.2 metres from parked cars whenever possible – this is what's often considered 'the anti-dooring distance'.
Avoid riding through empty car parking spaces too, as your child could take drivers by surprise and may not have spotted cars coming approaching them from behind too. It's best to practise riding in as straight a line as possible.
- PAVEMENT KERBS
Riding too close to the edge could see your child clip their pedals against the kerb, lose their balance and potentially end up on the floor. Make sure they keep a distance of around one metre from the kerb.
- BLIND SPOTS
Every vehicle has a blind spot, meaning the driver won't be able to spot a cyclist from a certain angle. The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the blind spot. To protect your child, take note:
- Never ride too close to vehicles.
- When at a junction or a set of traffic lights, don't stop alongside a vehicle on your right (in right-driving countries) or directly in front of a vehicle because the driver might not have a clear view of those areas.
- It is safest for your child to stop behind a vehicle, leaving a big enough gap between the vehicle and them.
Tramlines can be treacherous for cyclists. It's hard to stay upright if bike wheels get caught between the rails. Avoid anywhere that has limited space running parallel between the pavement kerb or parked cars and tramlines. Crossing tramlines needs practising too – aim to cross them at a wide angle of 45–90 degrees.
Considering traffic from a child's point of view
Riding a bike on the road requires a few key skills – beyond safe handling of the bike – that kids develop over time as they gain more experience. Never overestimate your child and remember that they will view the world around them very differently to you depending on their age and stage of development...
- LINE OF SIGHT: By being of a smaller build and sitting lower on their bike, your child won't have such a clear view in many situations as you. Their vision is more restricted. With this in mind, you should assess your chosen route from your child's perspective, so you can identify any risks they may face.
- Eyes and ears: Children can't judge distance and speed properly until they are nine years old. And even then, their field of vision is restricted until they hit the age of twelve. You can assume that your child will see a big car as being nearer than a small one and they won't be able to see a vehicle approaching at the side as well as you can. What's more, children can't distinguish between sounds or identify potential dangers until they are at least seven years old. Before that point, your child will notice a loud car faster than a quiet one.
- Attention and concentration: Even if your six-year-old child has mastered paying full attention to something, they are still easily distracted at that age. A dog walking past, for example, may cause them to lose their focus. By the time they are eight years old, your child will be able to concentrate on one thing for longer, allowing them to focus on the entire bike ride to school, for example.
- Logical thinking: Until they reach the age of around seven, children typically have an egocentric view of the world. This means that if they see a car, they assume that the driver must be able to see them.
- Reaction time: A five-year-old's reaction time is about double that of an adult's. It's not until they hit puberty that their reaction time will start to catch up with an adult.
- Awareness of danger: Your child won't be in a position to make rational decisions just yet. Basically, they'd pick the shorter route over the safer one. From the age of around five, they'll start to develop a general sense of danger, but it'll be a good few years before your child really starts to anticipate potential risks. And even then it'll take a while for them to be able to actually dodge risky situations and react to them appropriately.
How can you train your child to ride in traffic?
Purposeful play isn't just for fun – through drills and fun exercises, your child's safety on the roads will improve. It's best to practice in the safest place you can find and run through specific scenarios with your child. Examples include:
- Precision braking: Draw a mark on the floor where your child needs to stop their bike.
- What to do at junctions: Each time you reach a junction, your child needs to stop and shout 'Look left, look right!'
- Over-the-shoulder: Get your child to ride past you; as they do so, you hold up a certain number of fingers. Their challenge is to glance over their shoulder and spot the number or recognise the object. Then call it out to you.
Role playing: Take turns playing each other's role – let them have a go at being the responsible adult who will watch you carefully and tell you what to do. Make a few deliberate mistakes that they can point out to you.
Still looking for more games? We've gathered a ton of great technique-tuning games that will help boost safety.
The best thing to do is just keep repeating steps until your child has taken them on board and they become second nature
Never forget that you are setting an example. Don't just lecture your child about the rules of the road. Show them how to comply with them properly. When children are faced with new situations, it is important that they have a role model to watch and copy.
You don't want them to be picking up bad habits, which is why we've also created this guide to the most commonly made cycling mistakes and how to avoid them.
Have lots of fun practising and stay safe!