Family Biking: I shouldn’t feel like a criminal for biking with my baby

Person placing a child car set into the cargo box of a bicycle in a driveway.
Pre-ride test of the baby seat in the box.
(Photos: Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

“I’m not going to go to jail for this, am I?” my husband looked at me pointedly. I had tasked him with installing our infant car seat in the front box of my bakfiets-style cargo bike.

I can imagine my neighbor watching us, waiting for another opportunity to call the authorities.

“Um…no?” I wasn’t exactly sure.

“You should find out.”

I don’t blame him for asking. We’re a bit sensitive about the legality of various parenting choices and the perceptions of the neighborhood, ever since an anonymous tipster reported us for letting our kiddos play outside – directly in front of our house – because we don’t stand watch every minute. We believe it’s our right to let our kids play outside, just as we think we should have the right to bike with our baby. But does the law – and a jury of our neighbors – agree?

I can imagine my neighbor watching us, waiting for another opportunity to call the authorities. I can just picture the phone call, as soon as she sees the infant car seat in the front of my cargo bike… How much trouble could we be getting ourselves into?

Admittedly, I know we aren’t exactly in the clear. Laws vary by state. New York law specifically prohibits babies under the age of one from riding on a bike. Oregon law doesn’t explicitly forbid infants from bikes, but Oregon does require all children under age 16 to wear a helmet (ORS 814.485). That law feels like a de facto prohibition against riding with an infant, because new babies can’t [safely] wear helmets. Infants that lack full head/neck control may not be able to hold up their head with the added helmet weight, which could force down their chin and restrict their airway. Nevertheless, according to the law, if folks bike with an unhelmeted baby in Oregon, they are in violation of the statute. (Interestingly, there is a religious exemption, if wearing a helmet would violate one’s religious beliefs. There isn’t an exemption, however, if wearing a helmet would violate one’s breathing ability.)

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Baby seat with a bungee cord across it inside the cargo bin of a bicycle.
Not quite ready, but close!

Of course, it seems like our family situation – biking with a baby in a car seat in a box bike – probably wasn’t considered by legislators. I want to claim that the car seat should count as “protective head gear,” but it doesn’t fit the technical definition. And I don’t think, “the law is dumb” and “the legislators don’t know what they’re making laws about” is going to be a good defense, should hubby or I need one.

To find out how worried we should be, I contacted two personal injury lawyers and longtime supporters of BikePortland: Chris Thomas of Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost; and Charley Gee. To begin, I confronted them with the most important, extremely technical and legal question: did they bike with their babies? And if so, were they worried about being pulled over?

After all my fretting, I was surprised when they readily – and happily – recounted biking with their wee ones. Gee pulled a baby in a bike trailer, and Thomas carted his youngest baby in a car seat strapped to a box bike, followed by other child-schlepping bike configurations.

“I did have a neighbor who would yell ‘Child Endangerment!’ whenever I rode by with my kid in a Yepp seat,” Thomas recalled with a bit of a chuckle. (Gee assured me that, whatever the neighbors may yell, biking with a child would not fall under the definition of endangering the welfare of a minor.)

As it turns out, neither lawyer lost any sleep over the decision to bike with a baby (I asked) – which for me felt momentous, after months of reading and worrying over biking-with-baby blogs.

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Neither Gee nor Thomas had ever heard of a citation being issued for biking with an unhelmeted baby. They had never heard of the law being enforced against infants or their caregivers.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Gee.

“If people were getting tickets [for biking with an unhelmeted baby], the overwhelming consensus would be that this is silly,” asserted Thomas.

I want a baby exemption from the helmet laws.

I was still nervous. But what if? I pressed the issue. Just in case.

Gee and Thomas provided further clarification and comfort (that’s really why I called, wasn’t it?) Biking with an unhelmeted child is not a crime; it’s a violation. The offense is “failure to wear protective headgear” (ORS 814.485) in the case of the baby and “endangering a bicycle operator or passenger” (ORS 814.486) in the case of the grown-up biking with an unhelmeted baby. These offenses come with a fine of $25.

In other words, in the hopefully worst-case scenario, we could get pulled over and issued a $25 citation. Maybe two times over: $25 for the baby’s violation and $25 for the parent’s violation, if the policeperson is in a particularly peckish mood. This type of citation would generally go to traffic court. Admit guilt, pay the fine, and go home. No stint in jail.

“Good news!” I told my husband after talking to two different lawyers. “You won’t go to jail for this.”

Does that mean I’m satisfied? Absolutely not. I want a baby exemption from the helmet laws. I want biking-with-baby to be a legally protected form of family travel.

I have more to say on that… next week. In the meantime, we’ve just about got my bike, and baby, ready-to-roll. Baby’s first ride. Mommy’s… civil disobedience? If that costs me $25, it’s a price I can pay, but I definitely don’t think I should have to.

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Bryan Morris
Bryan Morris
2 months ago

I don’t know about the law, but I think riding a bike on public streets with a newborn strapped in a car seat shows a lack of common sense.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin
Reply to  Bryan Morris

That’s what we did. It worked really well. Baby liked it. And felt safe to us. Also, “common” sense varies and is a bit of a misnomer because not everyone has the same sense in common.

qqq
qqq
1 month ago

Can’t read “‘commom’ sense varies” without thinking of my favorite biking-with-kids (of helmet-wearing age in this case) video: https://www.singletracks.com/mtb-videos/watch-danny-macaskills-newest-film-danny-daycare/

Tim
Tim
2 months ago
Reply to  Bryan Morris

Hmm?? – How many children are killed each year by automobile drivers? How many of those children were in their parents cars? Look up the answers before asking yourself if the word would be a better place if children only traveled by car?

Just the facts Ma'am
Just the facts Ma'am
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim

How many cars with children passengers are hit by other cars, and nobody has serious injuries? How many bicycles with children passengers are hit by cars and nobody has serious injuries. Look up THOSE answers.

Nick
Nick
2 months ago
Reply to  Bryan Morris

I don’t know about common sense, but my kids enjoyed riding in the trailer from 6mos on. Statistically speaking my kids and I are much more likely to get killed or injured in a car crash while driving on a major street than we are to be killed or injured while riding on lower-traffic neighborhood roads of the sort I used to commute them to and from daycare and preschool.

Also- if anyone reading this article is concerned about dangerous drivers, please consider driving at or below the speed limit, coming to a complete stop at stop signs, and always using your turn signals when you use a car. It’s possible to normalize good behavior as drivers.

bArbaroo
bArbaroo
2 months ago
Reply to  Bryan Morris

What JM says about common sense varying is true. I find it very sensible to use a bike for child transport – by my experience it is quite safe. In fact, I would be more afraid to put my (hypothetical) infant in a car and drive down the freeway at 60+ mph. Statistics might support this as a quick google (infant car fatalities) got the headline “Car crashes are leading cause of death for kids” To compare the same search with “bike” inserted instead of “car” showed me this statistic from Stanford, “Each year about 100 children are killed and 254,000 are injured as a result of bicycle-related accidents. Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among children ages 1 to 4.” Neither of these studies are addressing new born or infants specifically but I think they provide some insight to where the risk lies. The other kink to this comparison is that Stanford the bike accident stat was not limited to children being carried in bikes it is primarily children riding bikes, which is not what we are discussing here. That and 12+ years of selling bikes specifically to carry children and knowing of very few injuries and no deaths gives me confidence that the risk is not as high as one might think and so I’d be curious to learn more about why you think that carrying an infant in a bike “shows a lack of common sense?

Chris I
Chris I
1 month ago
Reply to  Bryan Morris

Choosing an exurban “drive everywhere on 2-lane roads” lifestyle is significantly more dangerous for babies/children than some inner-Portlander riding with their baby on a greenway. Which activity would be considered more dangerous by most Americans?

https://www.epermittest.com/drivers-education/dangers-rural-roads

Just the facts Ma'am
Just the facts Ma'am
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris I

Define “greenway” in inner-Portland.

joel
joel
1 month ago
Reply to  Bryan Morris

I think the article should clarify how many months old- Babies change a lot in the first twelve months. once a child develops neck muscles then upright seats are ok. Im unsure about newborns- we waited 6 months to bike. but strollers are allowed on busses, and trains- keeping the same angle, in the same carseat. if the car seat could properly be latched to the frame- just as well as in a car- only thing could be vibration. but i like the fact the kid is in front. and you can constantly watch. There has been recently some bans on 30 degree inclined seats for children with the fisher price rocker lawsuit.

Tim
Tim
2 months ago

I think your “neighbor” needs to get a life (or at least a better grip on reality)

Richard
Richard
2 months ago

Thanks for this post, Shannon. Expecting our first baby later this year and I’m looking forward to taking him for the occasional bike ride.

qqq
qqq
2 months ago

This is a great article. What strikes me as particularly nutty is that it looks like you can’t avoid the helmet requirement even if you stay off the road:

“A person commits the offense of failure of a bicycle operator or rider to wear protective headgear if the person is under 16 years of age, operates or rides on a bicycle on a highway or ON PREMISES OPEN TO THE PUBLIC…”
https://oregon.public.law/statutes/ors_814.485

So the car seat solution doesn’t appear (to non-lawyer me) to be legal even if you ride only on sidewalks or park paths.

At least strollers and wagons aren’t considered to be vehicles requiring kids to wear helmets or be in car seats (I hope).

Allan Rudwick
2 months ago

started earlier with each child. 11 weeks and down to 7 with the youngest. Car seat in a bike trailer. felt quite safe. Would do it again.

I agree the law should change

CaptainKarma
CaptainKarma
1 month ago
Reply to  Allan Rudwick

I did the exact same. Do they require helmets in strollers?

bArbaroo
bArbaroo
2 months ago

This might be my favorite BP headline of all time!

Todd/Boulanger
1 month ago

Yes, with due care and preparation it should be fine. Seek input from your PCP and the main issue is waiting for a child to build up neck muscles so their head is not bounced around unnecessarily.) The key is also pick your bike well, the front loaded ‘bakfiets type’ bike with child carrier allows easy to over see and more secure riding at a younger age…then as they get older consider adding long tail bikes or trailers. (I have talked to many parents from the Netherlands and observed a lot of bakfiets there set up for kinder transport. I had a bakfiets for almost 10 years of bi-state use.)

EEE
EEE
1 month ago

The “anonymous tipster” could have easily been an Oregon mandatory reporter. You have to realize that at some point certain conduct in relation to your child CAN amount to child abuse or neglect — including hypothetical situations involving leaving kids unattended or riding around with a newborn on a bicycle. And once they see something that looks a little sus, reporters aren’t in a position to guess about the level of your recklessness and whether it triggers the reporting requirements. Stay safe.

ROH
ROH
1 month ago
Reply to  EEE

Sad that we live in a society where children playing alone outside would ever trigger suspicion of neglect or endangerment.

Matt S.
Matt S.
1 month ago
Reply to  ROH

That’s the sad state of affairs in Portland these days. I grew up in small town in Oregon, I walked to elementary school after kindergarten, I walked to middle school, I rode my bike to HS. I don’t think my children will have the same experience in Portland. The city I’m from averages one homicide every three years. Portland is averaging more than one a week.

I can see why parents are scared, Portland is a mess.

Jrdpdx
Jrdpdx
1 month ago
Reply to  EEE

Not all mandatory reporters are robots w out judgment. This comment lacks a reality check

Chris I
Chris I
1 month ago
Reply to  Jrdpdx

The problem is that they do have judgement. Our society is so perverted towards car culture that anything else is judged as dangerous.

Fred
Fred
1 month ago
Reply to  EEE

Sorry, EEE, but there is no possible way that allowing children to play unattended in your front yard – short of giving them matches or explosives etc – would EVER rise to the level of mandatory reporting. I’m a mandatory reporter and I’ve had the training and this conduct just does NOT rise to the level where it would need to be reported.

You are correct that mandatory reporters have to report child endangerment but only when a child is actually endangered. Carrying your child in an accepted way on your bike is NOT one of them, either. BTW, reckless driving or speeding with a kid in the car, even in a car seat, CAN be considered endangerment. Riding safely with your kid on your bike is not.

Madi Carlson
1 month ago

How interesting! Thanks for looking into the legal side of things—I had no idea about the relatively small fines. I cannot wait to hear about your first ride and read next week’s column! I would have loved a bakfiets for my infants, but car seat in trailer did the trick OK <3

ActualPractical
ActualPractical
1 month ago

I delayed activities like hiking with them in a bag until it was considered safe per their bone development. Then went all out afterwards.

Riding has inherent risks but the vast majority is posed by cars. Several times they nearly mowed us down on stroller walks down NE Broadway… probably would’ve been safer on a bike.

Steve Scarich
Steve Scarich
1 month ago

I have been hit from behind twice on my bike in the past four years, while riding legally in a bike lane in Bend. If I had a child on, or attached to my bike, he/she would probably have been seriously injured. I have driven cars since 1963, hundreds of thousands of miles, and never been hit from behind by a car. Riding in cities with your kid attached is playing Russian Roulette with their safety. I wish it was not so, but that is reality. And, not having them in some kind of helmet-like protection is flat-out irresponsible. In terms of risk, it probably ranks somewhere close to not giving them any vaccinations. They ‘probably’ won’t have a bad outcome, but you have raised their odds significantly.

Fred
Fred
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Scarich

Sorry to hear it, Steve, but I’d wager your experience is HIGHLY atypical – like being struck twice by lightning. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who have been struck ONCE from behind while riding in a bike lane, let alone TWICE.

Would be interested to hear about your riding habits, like whether you ride 100,000 miles a year and therefore are like 100 people who ride 1000 miles per year.

Chris Hagerman
Chris Hagerman
1 month ago

Carefully rode both babies around in a carseat strapped into the bakfiets until they were old enough to sit up and wear a helmet. It’s one of my favorite memories of their early years and I would encourage new parents to consider it.

Aaron Powell
1 month ago

Baby-biker here.

For all the crazy laws we have to put up with in Texas, at least they got one right recently: the “Reasonable Childhood Independence law”. Now I don’t have to worry about criminal penalties for likewise letting my kids play outside.

But biking with kids is in the same broader camp of “Let parents parent as they wish” (outside of IMMINENT danger or physical abuse), so I’m glad you made that connection.

It should not be ok for people to judge other parents for their choices, especially if they aren’t strictly prohibited by law.

Is there an increased risk of injury when getting into a wreck with a car? Sure.

But is it more or less than the risk of organizing your life in a way that exposes you to miles of highway driving every day/week (where most fatal vehicle incidents happen)?

Can we start judging suburban commuter parents too? Or not, because driving and dying on the highway is the “normal” way of doing things?

And are we allowed to factor in the positive benefits that biking gives children into the equation?

People are quick to judge on a perceived immediate danger, but disregard considerations of long-term benefits.

It’s also interesting to see how what is completely ordinary in one country, is perceived to be shocking and scary in another.

Fred
Fred
1 month ago
Reply to  Aaron Powell

Comment of the week, esp “driving and dying on the highway is the “normal” way of doing things.”

Trike Guy
Trike Guy
1 month ago

It’s hard to imagine – I tease my dad that he would be sent to jail by today’s laws. I’m *so* glad that he didn’t raise me that way. I trace my resilience and independence straight back to parenting that is considered neglectful today.

We didn’t just play outside unattended – we hopped out bikes (6-10yrs old) and rode all over Milwaukie. The basic rule was “be home for dinner, don’t eat junk” (this was the very earliest days of the bottle bill and it was *very* easy for resourceful kids to get a couple of dollars worth of bottles/cans and go on a candy binge 🙂 )

Fred
Fred
1 month ago

Sorry about your neighbors. Passing judgment on how other people raise their kids is very much part of the modern zeitgeist. I grew up in the days of “free-range parenting,” which of course had its own problems (like kids bullying other kids). But today’s kids have a lot of problems caused by over-parenting, like anxiety and general fragility.

Samuel Colt
Samuel Colt
1 month ago

Bryan Morris comment above is correct.

If you want to ride with your baby, who has no choice in the matter, that’s fine. If you do it wearing a concrete colored jacket like the one in the above photo and while not using any flashing lights both front and rear of your bike, plus no bright colored clothing (yellow or orange), then you are increasing the odds of being hit. I’m OK with that – it’s your choice, but you will get no sympathy from me if you don’t take “common sense” measures to ensure your safety. “Common sense” – some have it and some don’t. Don’t cite your studies – they are meaningless – common sense trumps studies.

As far as the law goes – I have no idea what it says. I’d do what is reasonable and safe first and worry about the law later. There are tens of thousands of laws, we have tens of thousands of elected and unelected people making new laws every day around the nation – nobody could possibly keep up with them.

qqq
qqq
1 month ago

This map helps put into perspective the risk of riding with infants/children on public streets in Portland:
https://pdx.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=5385b143768c445db915a9c7fad32ebe

It shows traffic deaths and injuries since 2010, broken down by deaths vs. injuries, and whether people were biking, walking or in vehicles. Clearly there are too many. But they’re clustered in downtown/Central Eastside and on busy streets. There are multi-block areas throughout Portland that have had zero deaths or injuries, and much larger areas with only a scattering over a decade-plus.

If you combine choosing routes focused outside the high-crash streets/areas, especially while using some vigilance/caution/commonsense, biking looks extremely safe. My guess is it’s far safer than, say, driving on a high-crash street at rush hour or on a rainy night–that is, the kind of driving people do routinely with children without any special concern for safety.

Pfeif
Pfeif
1 month ago

I had a Bakfiet for ten years (2009 to 2019) when we bought it our son was 2 years old and we took him and his toys everywhere/ He loved it. When our second child was born in 2010 we looked at he idea of carrying him in the Bakfiet. We actually looked at an article here on Bikeportland. We decided to order a car seat belt from an autoparts store and drilled two holes in the floor of the box. Attached the seatbelt so it would hold the car seat as it would be in a car. Placed a large piece of camping foam under the car seat and off we went on many adventures. One of my favorite photos is of me riding the Bakfiet with the baby in the box and my older son on a trail a bike attached to the Bakfiet headed down town to the rose festival at waterfront park. I can tell you that baby has grown into a wonderful 11 year old boy who enjoys rides with dad on the tandem.

Matt S.
Matt S.
1 month ago
Reply to  Pfeif

2010 biking in Portland is much different than now.

CDD
CDD
1 month ago

Former CPS worker here (who has declared as “unfounded” the report of a 5 year old unhelmeted and bruised kid that fell off a bike). Do NOT underestimate the power of the Karen + govt. bureaucracy! Basically the younger the child (think anything under 3 is fragile porcelain) the higher the risk for the same activity/incident. Once the doctors/teachers call CPS/police for anything other than sniffles, the State errs on the side of caution and is quick to declare a kiddo “unsafe” due to negligence or worse, unwillingness of the parents to be protective. I’ll spare you the icky details of a 90 day “Protective Action Plans”, where you are basically treated as a cho-mo around your own kid… Please, put your kid on/in a bike after the age of ~ 2 or better, 3.

Tom
Tom
16 hours ago

Another perspective perhaps: We live in The Netherlands (Europe). It is a very heavily and regulated country here, there are rules and regulations for about everything. However, here in Amsterdam, cycling through traffic having a construction like this would not only be completely accepted, it would not even stand out or get noticed by anyone. Heck, I’ve even seen mothers with newborns of perhaps a few weeks old carried by bike just in a baby sling wrap carrier on mommy’s front without any protection at all, while having another toddler on the backseat. Nobody complaining and making a call to the authorities would do nothing about it. You would probably be laughed at for even calling.

And you know, I am not here to advocate that that is all completely safe, because it probably isn’t. There are safer ways to get around. But it is however completely accepted here to have kids on your/their bicycles in many ways you see fit, it’s not considered irresponsible at all and it is felt valuable to have the freedom to do as you see fit. It’s also felt completely responsible to let kids from about 7 or 8 years old go where they want themselves to other parts of town from a very young age on their own bicycles. As a parent of three young children find it sometimes terrifying to see them go of our driveway, yet I let them go knowing they will learn from the experience of being on their own. Well, of course cycling infrastructure is brilliant here and all drivers here are also cyclist, hence the acceptance of cyclist throughout is well guaranteed, but the safety argument could be made here as well: Simpy put, your child is safer when it wears a helmet (not a thing here), transported inside of a car, driven by their parents. It is even safer when you let your children only play inside and rarely get out and to never let them get alone anywhere. Yet, here, in this very well developed country with lots of rules and regulations and care for children we find it acceptable to let parents take this risk if they feel that it is the right choice. And most if not all parents here make the same choices, some going furhter in that than others.

Parenting is not about living risk-free, but about taking good consideration in what risks are acceptable and which are not. Cycling like this through traffic might not be your idea of responsible parenting, but that doesn;t make it irresponsible by itself.

I personally think that this is not a discussion about safety and cycling perse. It’s more a discussion about freedom and about what we as a socieity think is responsible parenting and what freedoms we grant parents do to things just a tad different. Losing the freedom to make these choices as a parent would be I think a great loss and worth fighting for.

Seeing a father that builds a construction like this, from my eyes, is a responsible father who thought about his actions and is willing to take a considered risk. Like we all do in different degrees. I would let him babysit my children all day