Ideas for Teaching Cycling to Children

by Fred Oswald, LCI #947

We must give our children the best information available.  This will make them safer and provide a lifelong source of healthy exercise.  The general concept can be summarized in two simple sentences:

      1.  A bike is not a toy, it is a child’s first vehicle.
      2.  Drive your bike.

Need for Cycling Education

Why Concentrate on Children

Opportunities for Educational Programs

See the reference section below for parents’ hand-outs and materials for training volunteers.

Avoid Repeating BAD ADVICE!

“It’s not what he doesn’t know that troubles me.  It’s what he knows for sure that just ain’t so.”
— Will Rogers

A major problem with traditional “bike safety” programs is that the people conducting the effort have little cycling experience and no training.  They are not properly informed about the subject.  Indeed, they are usually misinformed..  As a result, they repeat bad safety advice because it “sounds good.”  See below for several examples of typical bad advice with a brief explanation for why it is wrong.

Bad Advice

Why the Advice Is Wrong

“Stay out of the way of cars.” There are situations where it is safer to obviously be in the way.  For example, if the travel lane is not wide enough to share with passing traffic, move LEFT so following drivers are not tempted to “squeeze by”.  At intersections and driveways, cyclists who try to stay out of the way by riding on sidewalks tend to “appear out of nowhere” and get hit.  Experienced cyclists, who stay in the travel lane, are easily seen and avoided.
“The roads are too dangerous for bikes.” While safety can always be improved, a knowledgeable cyclist on the road is actually pretty safe.  The alternatives (sidewalks, multi-purpose paths or separate bike lanes) are significantly more dangerous.  The roads are safe because the “rules of the road” make traffic orderly and predictable.  The only rule of the road for sidewalks and paths is that there are no rules.
“Always ride on the sidewalk” Sidewalk cycling at moderate speed has about double the collision risk as the adjacent road.  This risk goes up with speed.  Drivers do not look for fast traffic on the sidewalk.  Sidewalk cycling is moderately safe only at walking speed.
“You could be dead right.” You are more likely to be “dead-wrong”.  This is often part of a fear campaign.  We don’t teach swimming that way.  When you have the right of way, use it.  You are much better off riding predictably and acting like you know what you are doing.  Of course, defensive driving is always wise — plan an escape route, just in case.
“Ride as far right as possible” This is a misinterpretation of the law that actually says ride “as near to the right side as practicable” (practice+able).  There are several situations where “hugging the curb” is not safe.  These include where the right lane is not wide enough to share with a passing vehicle and if there are hazards at the edge of the road, or where other drivers can see you better if you move left.  Always maintain a “safety zone” to your right.
“Ride as though other drivers can’t see you.” It is usually much better to make sure other drivers CAN see you.  This means, use lights at night, wear bright clothes in daytime and ride in or near the travel lane where other drivers are looking for traffic.
“Always signal before turning.” Signal when you can but not if you risk losing control of your bike.  It is much more important to YIELD to any traffic that has the right of way.
“Always STOP at stop signs.” That’s what the sign says.  The problem is this ignores the most important function of a stop sign.  It is much more important to YIELD to any traffic that has the right of way.  Stopping complies with only part of the law.
“Drivers are crazy.” This is often part of a fear campaign.  Actually, most U.S. drivers are pretty good.  Almost everyone obeys the most important rules of the road.  This makes travel fairly safe and efficient.
Helmets provide “courage for your head.” This is an irresponsible advertising slogan that implies a helmet makes dangerous riding OK.  It is much better to prevent a crash than just to survive one.  A helmet is your last line of defense.  Good to have one, but far from the most important aspect of safety on a bike.

Resources & Materials (both adult – reference & kids or parents info.)

For comments or questions, contact fredoswald_AT_yahoo_DOT_com.
The author is a certified Bicycling Safety Instructor, and a Professional Engineer in Ohio.
Minor update 10/30/15

© Copyright 2004-2015 Fred Oswald.  Material may be copied with attribution.