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Cycling fun; not without risks
Health advice
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Bike riding is fun for children and adults and it’s great exercise. Bicycles are an efficient mode of transportation; they can be the quickest way to school each day for some children. But biking can be dangerous. The risk for young people is especially high.
According to the Children’s Safety Network, in 2005, children and youth ages 0-20 made up 23.4 percent of bicycle fatalities. Forty-four percent of nonfatal bicycle injuries occurred in children and youth ages 5-20.
Most people don’t realize the extent of injuries that can result from bike crashes. Injuries to the head are particularly dangerous and remain the leading cause of death and permanent disability in bike crashes. More than 140,000 children are treated every year in emergency rooms for head injuries sustained while riding bikes.
According to, many bike-related injuries and deaths could be avoided if riders wore safety helmets. The use of bike helmets could reduce the risk of brain injuries by as much as 88 percent and would reduce the risk of injury to the face by 65 percent. However, only about 25 percent of U.S. children ages 4-15 wear a helmet when riding. Most teens rarely use helmets because their perception is that helmets aren’t fashionable. Teens also complain that helmets are uncomfortable and hot. It can be difficult to convince parents and children how effective helmets can be in preventing head injuries.
Important tips every parent should know about children and bikes:
• Do not push your child to ride without training wheels until he or she is ready (usually around age 5 or 6). Consider the child’s coordination and desire to learn to ride. Your child’s first bike also should be equipped with footbrakes, since children’s hand muscles and coordination are not mature enough to control hand brakes. Stick with coaster brakes until your child is older and more experienced.
• Take your child with you when you shop for the bike so he or she can try it out. The value of a properly fitting bike far outweighs the value of surprising your child with a new bike.
• Shop for a bike that is the right size rather than one your child has to grow into. Oversized bikes are especially dangerous. The majority of children do not have the skills and coordination needed to handle a bigger bike and so are more prone to lose control.
The way to test a bike (any style) for proper fit is by having your child sit on the seat with his or her hands on the handlebars. The child must be able to place the balls of both feet on the ground.       
While straddling the center bar, your child should be able to stand with both feet flat on the ground.
When buying a bike with hand brakes for an older child, make sure the child can comfortably grasp the brakes and apply sufficient pressure to stop the bike.
Teach your child these basic safety rules:
• Wear a helmet: A helmet offers protection from serious injury and should always be worn. In fact, it should be considered standard equipment. Be sure to buy a Consumer Product Safety Commission-approved helmet when buying a bike. Children need to wear helmets on every bike ride, no matter how short the ride or how close to home. Many accidents happen in driveways, on sidewalks and on bike paths, not just on streets. The majority of bike crashes happen near home. Wearing a helmet at all times helps children develop a helmet habit.
• Ride on the right side, with traffic. Riding against traffic confuses or surprises drivers. Almost one-fourth of bicycle-car collisions result from bicyclists riding against traffic.
• Use appropriate hand signals. Hand signals are an important part of the rules of the road and should be taught to all children before they begin to ride in the street. Hand signals are important communication links between cyclists and motorists and any child who does not have the skills necessary to use hand signals without falling or swerving shouldn’t be riding in the street. Many accidents involving older children occur because they fail to signal motorists of intended actions.
• Respect traffic signals. Children who ignore safety rules should be disciplined appropriately, such as by temporarily denying them the use of the bike, to establish the significance of the misbehavior. Have children ride on sidewalks and paths until they are at least 10 years old, are able to show good riding skills and are able to observe the basic rules of the road.
• Wear bike reflectors and a reflective vest when riding at night. It’s never safe for children to ride a bike at dusk or after dark at night. Night riding requires special skills and special equipment and few youngsters are equipped with either.
• Keep bikes in good repair. Children should learn how to do as much maintenance as their age allows, and parents need to frequently check the tires, brakes and seat and adjust the handlebar height annually.

Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.
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