Family Biking: A safe cycling self check-up (Part 1)

Blinky lights are key to our safe cycling arsenal.
(Photos: Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

After our recent visits to some ‘traffic gardens’ to practice bike skills and signalling, I’ve been thinking more about bike safety with our family and asking a lot of questions:

– How can we improve our family bicycle and traffic safety?

– What are our safety weaknesses or bad habits?

– What skills do we need to teach and practice with our children?

– And what potentially dangerous situations do we confront that we can better prepare ourselves for?

Now seems to be a good time for a self-check of our safety practices, especially as rain, leaves and early darkness pose additional dangers. Here’s what we’re doing, thinking, learning, and working on:

Always Wear a Helmet: Check.

Always Wear a Helmet Properly: Oof!

He’s laughing, but a poor-fitting helmet isn’t funny.

I confess: We have some helmet fit problems. When I honestly examine this basic tenet of bicycle safety, I am humbled to admit that I have been failing with two of my children. They wear helmets, yes, but they haven’t been wearing them properly. My kids are sort of wearing their helmets. That seems like a victory! But the pavement won’t provide softer cushion because we got our helmets halfway on.

For my oldest son, the tightening strap is broken and doesn’t maintain a snug fit, so he needs a new helmet, pronto. I’m also having helmet trouble with my four-year-old who has very thick bangs. We’ve tried multiple helmets and he always wears them pushed too far back on his head. When I try to secure the helmet properly on his forehead, he bursts into tears, saying it’s too tight. Honestly, we just keep failing to get a correct and comfortable fit for him. Finally, I’ve decided to order a skater-style helmet (dual-certified for use with bicycles and skateboards), to see if we can get a more comfortable fit with a different style of helmet. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Lights and visibility:

I really hadn’t expected to need this. I didn’t think we’d be doing any biking in darkness or poor visibility conditions (like rain), but we have already been caught out at dusk, lingering at the library or park longer than intended, then racing the sunset to get home before total darkness shrouded us in a cloak of dangerous invisibility.

To lighten ourselves up, we made a trip to the bike shop to pick up a handful of blinky lights and headlights. We’re also trying to improve our clothing choices. I originally bought a rain poncho in a stylish and subdued green, but decided to return and exchange it for a much brighter yellow (even though I look wretched in yellow!) I should model what I preach: Safety over fashion. I also bought a few cheap reflective vests for my kids, especially my oldest son, whose wardrobe seems to consist of various shades of black. We haven’t tried those out yet, but I plan to use them the next time we head out in the evening. I want my kiddos to be as visible as possible.

Take time to prepare and check equipment:

Pump those tires.

I’m working to make peace with the need to allow an extra five or ten minutes to make sure we are really ready to ride. That means adjusting everyone’s helmets, turning on lights, making sure we have proper outdoor and reflective gear, and yes, pumping up those tires (which lose air over time, even if they don’t have a flat). Rushing and running late, unprepared and distracted, is such an easy trap to fall into, but it can be dangerous. And it is no fun to ride on low/flat tires. Taking the bit of extra time could really save us, in more ways than one.

Double-check the weather: Yeah, we got caught in a hail storm already too. I didn’t want to admit that the sky looked bad. I had spent an hour getting us ready to get out the door, and everyone was finally ready to go… then we arrived under the library roof just in time to watch the hail come cascading down. We got lucky that time, but it would be far wiser to check the weather with one of those nifty apps like Dark Sky that would just let us know we could wait 15 minutes for the storm to pass.

So, those are the ways we’re working to level-up our safety game, with proper gear and preparation. Are we forgetting anything? Next week, I’ll share the safety conversations we’ve been having with our oldest kiddo, as we prepare him for the confusing and dangerous biking situations we encounter out on the road. Safe travels, ya’ll.

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