Why are we so afraid of letting kids ride bikes when statistics prove their safety?

Is riding a bike too risky for kids?

The question nags many parents beyond the typical helicopter-parent anxiety that permeates modern childhood. Cycling has gone from a bedrock part of childhood a few generations ago to something akin to BASE jumping in the eyes of some grownups.

Sometimes, even those trying to promote public health push the sentiment that cycling is inherently dangerous. Alberta Health Service recently removed information from its website after a mini furor over its anti-bike leanings. It warned parents about the potential dangers of cycling with kids, advised parents against using bike trailers or child seats until kids are four years old and to never take kids on streets, even if there is a bike lane. All of this struck some parents as overly cautious for something as simple as going for a bike ride.

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I don’t blame a health agency specifically for such advice. Rather it’s part of the bizarrely myopic lens in which we view kids’ cycling in North America, not as a part of a healthy lifestyle, but as a risky adventure sport.

So in wondering about the real risks of riding a bike, I put the question to Dr. Kay Teschke. She’s a prominent researcher at the University of British Columbia, and one of the most prominent researchers of bike safety on the continent. She had some illuminating insight.

First of all, she provided some statistics for context. Teschke recently served on a coroner’s panel that reviewed non-motorized road-related child deaths in British Columbia between 2005 to 2014. Over those 10 years, in the province of 4.5 million people, there were precisely zero toddlers killed while riding with their parents in a bike seat or a trailer.

Looking more broadly, during those 10 years, the review found that 17 children in B.C. were killed while riding a bike. Of those, four were under 10 years old. These are awful stories, but the details are important:

  • A two year old riding a tricycle in a back lane was killed by a speeding driver.
  • A three year old riding a ride-on toy on the sidewalk was killed by an errant driver.
  • An eight-year old at a blind T-junction was hit while riding on a rural road with no shoulders.
  • A 9-year old on a rural road with no shoulders was hit by a speeding driver with a suspended licence in a stolen car.

These are horrific stories, but compare the those numbers to those killed while riding in cars. In that same 10-year period, 280 children were killed in motor vehicles

Even walking was more dangerous: 55 kids were killed by drivers while they were on foot.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking statistic of them all: There were nine toddlers killed in a driveway when a driver backed over them. That’s more than twice as many as were killed while cycling.

Put in another way, here’s the average number of children under 19 killed every year in B.C.:

  • While riding a bike: 1.7.
  • While walking: 5.5.
  • While riding in cars: 28.

Despite those numbers, how often do do we hear warnings about children travelling in cars? It does happen, but rarely is the simple act of being in a car cited as something inherently dangerous (if statistics drove such warnings, we’d be smart to advise kids to never play in a driveway). In fact, when parents are worried about the dangers of children riding a bike or walking to school, they often choose to drive them, as if it is the safer option.

Teschke also mentioned a Quebec study that compared the risks of cycling to other activities, including sports. Only swimming had a lower injury rate than cycling. It sounds silly, but cycling even compares favourably to something as simple as walking down the street. Teschke’s B.C. study found that cycling and walking had similar fatality rates per trip, and bicycling had a lower fatality rate per distance travelled (the pattern was reversed for injury rates).

Yet cycling seems to be singled out as the risky activity. We don’t legislate drivers into wearing helmets, or shame them into wearing high-visibility clothing when walking down the street.

So what gives? Why is our perception of cycling so different than reality? Teschke thinks part of it is because most of us are smart enough to realize we don’t want to end up on the losing end of a collision with a car.

“We do see riding on city streets as risky, because we know that we are vulnerable if we are hit by a motor vehicle,” Teschke told me. “Why we see cycling as so much more dangerous than walking is interesting. Part of it is likely that walking is provided with sidewalk infrastructure along most urban streets. Some research shows that the emphasis on safety clothing, including high visibility gear and helmets, makes us perceive cycling as unsafe.”

I also think that human’s innate inability to properly assess risk plays into this problem. We tend to overestimate the risks of short-term dangers, while remaining indifferent to long-term ones. That’s why so many of us think it’s insane to undertake “risky” activities such as rock climbing or BASE jumping, yet we rarely think twice about more distant risks, even if they are much more likely to harm us, such as the dangers of poor diet or inactive lifestyles.

The latter is why it’s such a shame that cycling is seens as a dangerous activity for kids to participate in. As Teschke, herself a mother, points out, there are many studies that weigh the benefits and risks of cycling, and they “almost universally” find a net benefit from the physical activity of riding a bike, not only physically, but also mentally.

“(Riding a bike) helps children develop decision-making skills, executive function, co-ordination, and social relationships,” she said, citing the work of a colleague, Mariana Brussoni.  “Independent mobility helps children understand the world and their place in it.”

Given the risk-averse nature of our society, perhaps the only way to get over our fear of children riding a bike may be to do something radical: Build safe, separated bike lanes. Yes, they have been shown to reduce injuries, but perhaps just as important is that such bike routes make us feel safe.

“Being a parent does make people (including me) think differently about our roads and their safety,” Teschke said. “Parents worried about their children were the catalyst for building safer routes in Holland starting in the 1970s. Parents seem to be strong advocates of safer conditions for cycling in Canada too.”

Update: Some clarifications were made to ensure accuracy on Oct. 13, 2016.


Get some bike safety tips over at Folding Bike Zone. 


Also published on Medium.

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3 Comments

  1. One of the curious facts about human evolution is culture. Learned at a young age, we grow up assuming culture is the safe norm, that it is an unchanging and absolute truth. Until we begin to educate ourselves about risk and statistics (this is what an education was supposed to do for kids who later may become parents with kids) we seldom question whether a culture is right or wrong.
    Having had to struggle at times with my own family, such cultural bias has been hard to undo.

    • Struggling with my own family refers to balancing concerns of safety with the needs of a family. I think it likely that this is omething every married person considers at sometime.

    • It’s interesting that you use the term “cultural bias.” I think it’s apt. A lot of our fears are learned, even when they aren’t rational. Education is a huge part in combatting that. And part of that education has to be experience – the more people are out there doing it, the more they’ll understand the risk.

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