Is Family Cycling Safe?
December 31, 2009
Julian / Totcycle in How To, Manifestos, Safety

Yes.

Please elaborate ...

This post has been a long time coming. Totcycle has been in existence for over a year, yet through luck or obscurity I haven't yet had a comment about child endangerment, such as you'll find on less "niche" online articles about cycling with kids.

I'm also fortunate to have a supportive wife and family when it comes to my OCD (obsessive cyclist disorder), and many of our friends are taking up family cycling as well. But I'm not so ensconced in a rosy family biking bubble that I don't worry about whether my choice to ride with small kids is safe.

What is this thing you call "safe"?

Is there any aspect of raising kids that could be considered absolutely "safe"? No. There are risks to any parenting decision we make, and in this age of parenting anxiety I think parents are (hyper)aware of this fact. But we tend to get hung up on the "active" risks, where by allowing our children to do blank [biking, walking, playing, climbing trees, talking to strangers, trick-or-treating] we put them at risk for blankety-blank [getting run over, closed head injury, fractures, abduction, poisoning, dismemberment].

And while we're wired to worry about the "yes" decisions we make, we often ignore the perils of "no" decisions, or the more "passive" risks. The risks here may be more insidious, less grisly, and certainly less likely to cast you as that parent on the TV news, but are arguably more harmful. Unreasonable fear of strangers, anxiety about quite rare events, lack of confidence, social isolation, excess screen time, lack of practical street skills and independence are all very real risks of habitually "protecting" our kids from exagerated dangers. And as the rates of active transportation have declined in this country, we've seen a dramatic increase in childhood obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other health risks. In fact, our children may be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

So rather than pursue some mythical goal of "safe", it seems more appropriate to find activities that are "safe enough". Would you want your child to have an "injury-free childhood" (the stated goal of a local injury-prevention group)? Free of death or permanent disability, yes! But free of injury risk, not so much. I don't think that childhood reasonably exists, now or in the future, without running the risk of creating an anxious, sedentary, overweight shut-in headed for early death and disability from inactivity.

Whoops. Now who's preying on parental fears? Scratch that last part. Turn off the TV news, stop watching CSI, remind yourself that violent crime has declined in this country, stranger abductions are very very rare, and let's get busy reclaiming childhood freedoms that we enjoyed. And pick up a copy of Free Range Kids while you're at it ...

The data on cycling, such as it is

Depending on what you read, cycling in the US is either 10 times more dangerous than in Europe, safer than driving, more dangerous than driving, or life-prolonging. Bike lanes and trails are safer, unless they're more dangerous, depending on how the data is massaged. Helmets save lives, or add rotational forces and invite cars to buzz you; helmet laws are the be-all and end-all of bicycle safety policy, unless they discourage cycling and raise the risk for those that do ride. Trailers are safer than child seats, except they tip over and cars might not see them. Riding a bike makes you happier and healthier, unless it makes you a habitual scofflaw whose smugness is barely contained by unsightly spandex.

Glad I could clear that up.

Here's the problem: we have some imperfect stats on cycling injuries and death (with injuries being under-reported, most likely). You might even find some statistics from your community, but as you read them you'll find a lot of cyclist behaviors that you very likely do not engage in (e.g. drunken wrong-way cycling in the dark without lights or helmet). Hmm. Where are the statistics for people who ride like me on the routes I ride?

And while total numbers of people injured or killed on bikes may be useful from a public policy perspective, these numbers are meaningless for individual decisions without a denominator, whether it be per hours cycled, or per mile. And we just don't have accurate numbers there. I've looked. Without them, there is no valid comparison between modes of travel (walking, biking, driving), nor can one compare child seats to trailers or other questions. Without them, all we've got left is opinion and bias.

Having read a lot of the statistics, and what few papers have been published on children and bikes, my impression is that cycling in most parts of the US is indeed more dangerous than in European cities with mature bicycle infrastructure and more "tame" drivers. The risks also seem higher in rural and exurban areas. But there are choices that one can make as a cyclist that will make you considerably less likely to become a statistic. Given smart cyclist behaviors, a community with reasonable bicycle route options, and a growing popularity of cycling, you may even be able to lower your family's immediate risk from cycling below that of driving. I already think it's healthier in the long view. Other reviewers I respect agree. Let's not forget that being in a motor vehicle is the number one cause of death and disability for most pediatric age groups, total numbers-wise.

How Irrational Fears Make Us Less Safe

[This added section inspired by the excellent comments below]
Data, or "objective safety" aside, we've also got subjective safety to deal with. Our nature is to fear rare, exotic events like abductions, and to ignore the humdrum but far-more-prevalent daily risks. Like driving, walking, stairs, bathing, and eating. Those don't make the news, but they're far more likely to cause us harm. Besides, if it makes the news, it's generally a rare event, no?

In our family, it's the stairs we should fear. Drew's taken many a solo tumble, and Kim and I have had more near-misses carrying kids down stairs than we have on bikes (arguably scarier than the typical low-speed family bike tipover). So we should probably all have stair-helmets and feel guilty about exposing our kids to our family stairclimbing "hobby".

But we don't, because stairs are familiar, mainstream. But by worrying excessively about rare events, we miss opportunities to mitigate common dangers, and we also may put others at risk. You can see this in maddeningly circular discussions about school dropoff safety, when it's the often distracted and rushing parents that make up the majority of the dangerous traffic they're so worried about. By choosing to drive over walking or biking for subjective safety concerns, we make the roads more objectively dangerous for those that do choose active transportation.

David Hembrow makes some excellent points about how increasing subjective safety can increase cycling rates (especially among women and parents who stereotypically are more concerned about safety), which through the "safety in numbers" effect can increase objective safety as well. Another such virtuous cycle is the peer modeling in bikier towns or schools where cycling starts to seem like the "normal" (ie non-extreme sport/hardcore) thing to do.

One caution is that as cycling rates increase, a "teenage driver" phenomenon may occur. As more inexperienced riders hit the roads, the injury numbers go up, and perhaps even the injury rates (which may be counter-balanced by motorists becoming more aware of cyclists). We do see higher rates of pediatric injury on bikes in the newly independent pre-adolescent and adolescent age groups. So bicycle campaigns and infrastructure improvements will ideally be married to education efforts (without flogging the safety angle so much that cycling starts to feel dangerous again).

So what can we do?

My hope regarding the "teen driver" issue is that by riding with my kids on my bike from a young age, I'll not only instill a love for bikes (that's already working out quite well!), but an ingrained awareness of how/where to ride. Through Kidical Mass rides and other adult-accompanied experiences, I plan to help my kids (and others) learn practical street riding skills, and when my kids are in grade school I want them to be involved in Safe Routes to School, and other ways to gradually increase their independence. Similar rides and classes are likely available where you live. If not, make them happen!

Parents newer to street riding can also find local classes in transportational cycling for themselves, ideally ones that aren't too steeped in a rigid "vehicular cycling" ideology. While there's a lot to be learned from that approach, you'll find that riding with kids needs a more flexible approach to route selection, and that the separate bicycle infrastructure they oppose can be just the ticket for newer/younger/less confident riders.

Or learn as I did, following in the steps of other online bikey families (see our blogroll in the left column), exercising a reasonable level of caution, and increasing my and my family's confidence level on local streets over the past year.

Other ways to make family cycling safer

Your well-meaning safety advice is making me feel less safe

I know. Sorry about that. An overemphasis on "safety" in bicycle promotion efforts makes riding a bike seem like an extreme sport.

It's not. It's just a delightful way to get around. Yes, yes, it's good for the environment, your health, and your community, but at heart, I ride because it makes me and mine happy.

Does it take courage to do so? Is it fool-hardy? Selfish? I don't claim to know for sure. It depends on your comfort level, and on where you live. We've all figured out by now that parenting ain't easy, and neither is this choice. But as with other decisions, educate your instinct, and then follow it.

It's not at all unusual to go by bike in Seattle, even with kids, but it may be in your town (not that it should stop you). I also think it's safer here than in suburbs/exurbs with cul-de-sac developments poorly linked by scary arterials. We have it pretty good, as much as I envy bike-friendlier towns like Portland, Boulder, Davis, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam.

But there are still rides and routes that worry me, and we're still sharing streets with distracted drivers hell-bent on speeding to the next traffic jam. We've got a long way to go in this country in making the public roads safer for all of us road users, and until aggressive traffic calming and active transportation infrastructure arrives, riding with kids can be a bit, well, at the leading edge.

We're an indicator species ... when you see enough parents out there feeling comfortable riding with kids is when you'll know we've arrived at a more sane and humane, less auto-centric society. But right now, where we live, people seem ready, or close to it. We get smiles and big waves and bike appreciation most places we go, as well as lots of questions from interested parents. I hope we're making cycling more subjectively safe for them.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the "is it safe?" elephant in the street, both on real and perceived risks, your experiences, and what your comfort level is riding with kids where you live. And ... Happy New Year! May 2010 be the Year, nay, the Decade of Family Biking. A big big thanks to all of you biking a la familia in your communities, and to all the 'Bike Supermoms and Dads' out there who've inspired us. Now go out there and "be the change ..."

Kim takes the kids for a MADSEN ride

Article originally appeared on Totcycle (http://totcycle.com/).
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