Each year, about 350,000 children are seriously injured while bike riding, 200 of whom die as a result. Many of these accidents could be avoided with simple safety measures. Here's what you can do to protect your child, and how to choose the safest equipment
What to look for when you buy...
A BABY CARRIER
Be sure that this seat, which attaches to the back of an adult's bicycle, has a shoulder harness, a lap belt, and a high back, as well as spoke guards to prevent hands and feet from getting caught in the bike's wheels. Also note how much weight the carrier can hold; toting a child who's too heavy can make a bicycle unsteady.
For 1- to 4-year-olds who can sit well unsupported and have a strong enough neck to wear a lightweight helmet.
A CHILD TRAILER
This three-wheeled cart fastens with a breakaway arm to the back of a bike. Trailers have two advantages over rear-mounted seats: They don't make a bike top-heavy, and they're less likely to throw a child if the bike tips over. Check the maximum weight it can hold—one-passenger trailers usually pull up to 50 or 70 pounds; two-passenger ones, up to 100 pounds. To make a trailer more visible, attach a neon-colored safety flag.
For kids age 1 and up who can sit well unsupported and have a strong enough neck to wear a lightweight helmet.
One that's low to the ground and has big wheels is less likely to tip over. Most trikes have pedals that drive the front wheel, instead of a chain; they tend to pick up speed on inclines, so steer clear of hills.
FOR 3- TO 5-YEAR-OLDS who can reach the handlebars and pedals, and understand the rules about when and where to ride.
It should feel sturdy, turn smoothly, and have brakes that don't jam. Rubber or metal pedals are less slippery than plastic ones. Don't buy a bike your child will "grow into" as he gets older; he should be able to straddle it with both feet flat on the ground, and easily reach the handlebars. There also should be 1 to 2 inches of clearance between his crotch and the bike's top tube—the bar that runs from the seat to the handlebar stem. (If you're not taking him to the store, measure his inseam, and subtract 1 or 2 inches.) Your child is ready for his first bike, with training wheels to start, when he can use coaster brakes (where he pedals backward to stop), usually by age 6. He can graduate to hand brakes when his hands are strong enough to squeeze the levers (about age 10).
Use Your Head!
Bike helmets can prevent up to 85 percent of head injuries and 75 percent of bike-related deaths. But when a helmet doesn't fit properly or isn't worn correctly, it can leave a child vulnerable to injury. It should fit snugly and be worn flat atop the head, so that it rests 1 inch above the eyebrows. If the helmet tilts too far back, it won't protect the front of the head; if it falls too far forward, it can block your child's vision. The chin strap should fit securely, without pinching the skin. An easy way to check: If you can slide two fingers under the strap when it's buckled, it's too loose.
Rules for the Road
- Always supervise children under 10 when they ride a bike or a trike. Never let a child of any age ride at night unless accompanied by an adult.
- Instruct kids not to ride in the street and to avoid bike paths that cross busy roads.
- Don't let children ride on handlebars (it can make a bike unsteady) or go off jumps.
- Teach kids to ride looking straight ahead to where they'll soon be -- not down at the front tire.
- Avoid letting children ride in baggy clothing; loose fabric can get caught in bike wheels and cause an accident.
- Always look to see if there are any kids riding around nearby before you get in your car and pull out of the garage or the driveway.
The Basics of Bike Care
Your child's bicycle should always be kept in good condition. Store it indoors (rain and moisture can rust and weaken parts), and do the following maintenance check every few months:
- Seat must be parallel to the ground and adjusted to your child's height.
- Reflectors should be kept clean and checked for cracks.
- Spokes that are broken or missing should be replaced.
- Pedals may need to be tightened with a screwdriver. Keep bearings and spindle well lubricated.
- Horn or bell should sound properly.
- Hand grips may need to be replaced if they're worn or loose.
- Handle-bars should be adjusted to your child's body height as she grows.
- Tires may need to be reinflated with a hand or a foot pump.
- Tire rims shouldn't warp or push against the frame.
- Chain guard can bend out of place. Make sure it covers the chain.
- Drive chain and sprocket may need to be lubricated to rotate with ease. Also, check that the chain fits snugly.
- Coaster brakes that don't stop easily can be lubricated with a light machine oil, such as WD-40.
SOURCES: Robert Tanz, M.D., chair of American Academy of Pediatrics' section on injury and poison prevention; Elizabeth Powell, M.D., pediatric emergency medicine physician, Children's Memorial Hospital, Chicago; Dave Duff, product safety manager, Huffy Bicycles; U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission; National Safe Kids Campaign; National Child Safety Council; Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.