Is Your Student Ready?
For those considering whether their student should bike to school, a basic understanding of childhood development as it relates to bicycle skills is necessary. Young children do not have the same abilities and skills to safely and consistently cope with traffic as older children and adults. This puts younger students, especially those five through nine years of age, at an increased risk for bicycle related traffic injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states “Children younger than 10 years old are not consistently able to make the decisions necessary to safely ride unsupervised in the street.”
Each child matures and learns the skills needed to negotiate traffic at their own rate. Parents and guardians should assess their student's traffic skills and judgement before allowing them to walk or bike to school without supervision.
The following is a list of characteristics that illustrate what should be considered regarding childhood development.
Young children may have limited peripheral vision compared to adults, and they may have greater difficulty determining the source of a sound. For instance, children around seven to eight years old typically stop using peripheral cues to help maintain balance, relying instead on their central vision to do so. Children at this age cannot use their peripheral vision as effectively to scan for traffic hazards.
Children are still learning to judge distances and speeds. When a car is coming toward them, they cannot judge accurately how fast it is traveling or how long it will take to cover the distance. They can easily misjudge whether it is safe to change lanes or cross a street.
Children are slower to execute their actions once their decision is made, meaning that children have a delay from the moment they make the decision to the moment they act.
Bicycle riding in traffic involves two types of motor skills (1) basic bicycle handling skills and (2) physical safety skills. For children, both skills must be practiced frequently and together so that the skills become automatic.
Children are spontaneous and have trouble stopping an action once started.
Children younger than about third grade often cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. They have short attention spans and are impulsive and inherently curious. If they are playing with friends or riding bikes it is unlikely that they are aware of traffic.
Parents can over-estimate their children’s ability to cross the street safely. Many elementary school aged children don’t understand traffic signals and don’t know how to anticipate drivers’ actions. Children under six rarely understand the true nature of a dangerous situation.
Children tend to overestimate their abilities, thinking that they can run across a street before the flashing light changes or a car approaches. Their thinking is a combination of reality and fantasy, knowledge and miscomprehension. Drivers and bicycle riders can each assume (incorrectly) that the other will yield the right of way.
Children and adolescents take risks due to the presence of peers and emotional development. During early adolescence the socio-emotional center of the brain is more dominant, meaning risk taking is more emotionally rewarding.