Discussion forum: Children & Cycling

Tuesday 5 May, 12.00 - 13.00: Children and cycling

Elaine Beckett, London Borough of Hackney
Trish Hirst, City of York Council
Lynne Thomas, City of York Council


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Our teenage son refuses to wear a cycle helmet. How important is it that he does so, and can you suggest how we might persuade him to do so?


It is currently not law to wear a cycle helmet in the UK – so the choice is currently a personal/parental one.

There are two important debates on helmets, which often get mashed together but essentially they are:

1. Does wearing a helmet reduce the level of injury if you fall off, or are involved in an accident?

2. Does wearing a helmet increase or decrease your “risk” of being involved in an accident?

The evidence on the first point can be quite confusing but I am of the opinion, from what I have read and witnessed over the years, that wearing a helmet will help to reduce my level of injury to the head/face if I am unlucky enough to fall off or be in an accident, in most circumstances that I ride in (30mph or under road situations) – so I make a personal choice to wear one.

On the second point, I don’t believe that just wearing a helmet will automatically reduce the risk of being involved in an accident, or falling off. Indeed some studies have suggested that the more like a “cyclist” you look, the less room car drivers will give you.

The whole theory about risk and wearing a cycle helmet is one that gets very heated with lots of conflicting “evidence”.

In terms of persuading your son to wear one, realistically it is no good you providing a helmet for you son, if once he has left the end of the street it is strapped to the handle bars. Peer pressure in teenage years is a difficult one to combat.

Could you negotiate with your son? There are plenty of “urban” skate board style helmets about these days which he may be willing to consider?

How about an agreement that he wears it for certain journeys or at certain times - like to school and back, or when he is riding a particularly busy road, or when he is out cycling with you? Does he ride his bike to school, and if so what is the school policy on helmet wearing?

I would say, if he absolutely refuses to wear one, then remember this whole choice is about balancing risk, and you have to weigh up the benefits of the exercise he is getting against his risk of not wearing a helmet.

My children, as they grew up also refused to wear the provided cycle helmets, but I was keen that they were active, and had their own transport in and around the area we lived, so I mitigated the risk, as far as it was possible for me to do by ensuring they were as well trained as I could provide for them, and ensured I was confident that they knew how to cycle and negotiate safely all the challenges they were likely to face in and about our local environment and regular cycle journeys. (It was useful that I myself was a cyclist, as I could go out with them and see how they cycled). When they first started cycling I put limits on which roads they were allowed on and as they grew and I felt more confident in their ability, I let them go onto more challenging roads.

Hope this helps.

This is very difficult for me to answer without involving my own experience as a mother of two sons who I constantly battled with to educate, encourage and persuade them to wear their cycle helmets.

In the end one of the only ways it worked with one of them was to take the bike away until we came to the agreement that he would wear it, then he got his bike back. Independence, at this age, is very important. I also encouraged all his friends parents to do the same and once they all wore their helmets everyone was happy.

I did show them videos, we talked about what happens to you should you receive brain damage and how once your brain is damaged you cannot repair it. You might like to look on the website of The Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust (www.bhit.org) - they have lots of information there but it really is about informing your children, showing good examples and enabling them to make the right choices.

Some of those good examples are the professional riders, who you see wearing safety equipment including the right helmet for each discipline, whether it be on or off road riding.

It worked for me in the end and they went through that phase of not wanting to wear helmets. It was slightly easier for me as I was the road safety officer in the local area and I delivered the cyclist training at their school - and the council whom I worked for insisted that cycle helmets were worn on all courses that they delivered, therefore they were used to wearing a helmet.

Several parents at our primary school would like to cycle to school with our children but we are put off by the heavy traffic levels around the school. Do you have any advice as to how others have overcome this problem?


The solution to your problem maybe a “Cycle Train” where you will all ride escorted to school with an experienced cyclist. This experienced cyclist, having received marshall training, becomes an outrider and the training they will undergo equips them with strategies to ensure that the group they are escorting reach their destination safely.

Ask your county/borough road safety officer about this and they may be able to help you. Additionally your local road safety officer will know your local area and will give you guidance on how to achieve your aim. You will find the contact details for your local road safety officer on the RSGB website (http://www.roadsafetygb.org.uk/regions/).

It is really important that you remember one of the beauties of cycling is that you have the ability to get off and become a pedestrian at any time. This is something that I use with a new environment or when I’m out with a less confident cyclist.

I would suggest that you do a bit of homework around your proposed bike journey.

If you are currently walking the journey, stop and watch the traffic at certain points - it is amazing what you can learn about the different ways to cycle a junction or road, by watching other road users and seeing how to do/not do the section or obstacle. It is also interesting to watch how other road users cars/vans/wagons negotiate the same section.

Do the journey yourself by bike without children in the first instance so that you know the route and which bits are going to be challenging with/for the children, and what alternatives there are for negotiating whatever the issue is (junction/busy section of road etc).

Do you know the area well? Are there quieter roads, a few streets away that you could use as an alternative/detour? It may add a few minutes to your journey, but may be a safer and more enjoyable alternative?

Once you have decided on your route, it may be an idea to take the children to do the journey at a quiet time, when you are not against the clock - so that at certain points you can stop and explain clearly to the children how/what you are going to do, such as when you get to this marker (post box/friends house/funny tree etc etc) I want you to get off your bike onto the pavement.

Certainly to start with, I would have them riding the easy bits and getting off and walking the bits you feel are more challenging.

Also think about your position on your bike. A lot of parents choose to cycle in front of their children, leading the way, but it may be more advantageous to cycle just behind, and further out from the edge of the road than your child, so any overtaking traffic has to pull past you first. (Where the road width allows, you may want to have your front wheel level with their back wheel.) Do keep close to your child, they should be able to hear your instruction, without them having to turn to look at you (whilst ensuring your road position does not push the child’s position into the gutter or pavement edge). This is where a bit of pre-planning and cycling at a quiet time can help the children to know exactly the route and when to stop/get off onto the pavement.

Of course if there are two adults with the family you may want to position yourselves one front, one back.

It is against the law to cycle on the pavement, but in some instances parents do decide that this is the best place for their children to cycle. If you do decide to do this, make sure children know that they should give way and be courteous to pedestrians at all times and if pavements get very busy with people, they should get off and walk.

My six year old daughter is hesitant and nervous about learning to cycle, but lots of the children in her class can already do so. How can I encourage her to overcome her nervousness and learn to ride her bike?


I wouldn’t feel pressured, nor pass on the pressure to your child to ride her bike. Children develop skills at different rates, and that is just the same for balance and cycling as any other skill.

But possible ideas include:
• You do see very small children on little two wheel balance bikes and I have wondered (although I have no theory to back it up) that if you take the peddles off your daughters bike, and make sure the seat is low enough for her to scoot on it, she may be happier about finding her balance.

• Alternatively, it is back to the old back breaking, time consuming method of finding a good flat surface in a park or closed car park and putting the time in with her. Make sure she can easily sit on the seat and reach the floor with her feet and don’t make an issue out of it. Unless you daughter sees the day as fun she won’t want to engage, unless she herself has the desire to want to do it, you will not get very far.

• Does she have a sibling/cousin/friend that can ride – you might find if you engage the help of another understanding child (that you have pre-briefed to help) they may be able to encourage a fun element and different approach for your child – if you can provide the safe traffic free environment and afternoon in the park.

My first question is do you ride a bike? Setting a good example to your daughter is by far the best way to encourage her.

If the answer is no then your local council may run family courses where you and your child can learn to ride a bicycle.

If the answer is yes you do ride a bike and want to teach your daughter how to ride, then remember children throughout their development learn at different stages and do not all develop their skills at the same time. You may need to spend a longer time encouraging her to be more familiar with her bike and it may help her confidence if she understands how the bike works –for example if you continue to peddle you are less likely to fall off. Show her with the bike turned upside down how the peddles make the wheels go round and the brakes stop the wheels going round.

Buy her safety equipment so that if she does fall off she will not hurt herself. This is the best time to get her into the routine of wearing a cycle helmet.

Practice, practice, practice on a soft area (the park or the garden) and where it is flat. You will need lots of patience holding on to the seat once the stabilisers have been removed and gradually let go of the seat. Lots of praise is also required and above all have fun. At this stage the bike needs to be a toy as opposed to a vehicle for the road, this will come later.

I hope you enjoy helping your daughter learn to ride, it is so rewarding when they achieve the challenge and ride off into the distance.

Is my 14-year old son likely to be safer cycling to school on his own or with his mates?


It is almost impossible to answer this, without knowing your son and his friends. As a parent it would entirely depend on who his friends were, and if I thought they would all cycle responsibly.

If you are confident that this is the case, there may be some benefit from safety in numbers.

If, on the other hand, with this group of friends he is likely to take more risks – then it may be that he is better on his own.

I would have thought to a certain degree, if he wants to cycle with his friends he will arrange to do so (away from home if you are not happy about it). You need to ensure that your son understands that cycling in a group or not, he needs to look and act for himself – making his own decisions on how and where he cycles, taking responsibility for his own individual riding.

This is a difficult question to answer as I don’t know your son or his friends. My advice as a Road Safety Officer would be for your son to cycle on his own. There is evidence to prove that when a cyclist at this age or thereabouts is completing a journey where they are focused without the influence of their peers, that they achieve the outcome (reaching their destination safely) on more occasions than those in a group.

Distractions are high in casualty causation factors in this age group whether they be the mobile phone, listening to music or being distracted by mates.

I would also advise taking further training to Bikeablity Level 3. Your local council Road Safety Officers will be able to advise you about this training. Your local road safety officer can be found on the RSGB website (http://www.roadsafetygb.org.uk/regions/).

Considering that most of the threats to a cyclist come from behind, would fitting a mirror be more beneficial for cyclist safety than any other intervention?

I’m not sure I agree that most of the threats to cyclists come from behind. In a city environment, I don’t think this is the case? I know in my area stats, junctions can be just as much of a risk for cyclists.

However, in terms of rural riding, then yes, I think risk from behind increases.

As to whether cyclists should have a mirror fitted, I think this is a personal choice – there are certainly plenty of cycle mirrors to choose from, if a rider feels they would like to use one.

I think a mirror can be used as part of the equipment quite successfully, to aid observation, but being observant generally and having an awareness of what is happening around you, and respect for other road users, is equally as important.

It is important to remember, even on a bike, there is a blind spot with mirrors, and just like the advice for motorcyclists who have mirrors as standard, there are instances when the lifesaver look, or checking that blind spot should not be omitted – like turning right from major to minor road, or moving position in the carriageway.

Fitting a mirror would give limited vision to see what is coming from behind you whilst cycling. It would also get you into the habit of not looking behind you. It is important that you turn to look behind you on both sides dependant on your road positioning. If you were also to have a mirror or mirrors on the handle bars of your bike they may alter the balance of the bike or obstruct the brakes.

It also depends on which environment you are riding in. In urban areas your threat maybe from car drivers and passengers opening their doors. They may not use their mirror or you could be in their blind spot and they used their mirror but did not turn to look behind them before opening the door.

If you live in the countryside then there may be a greater threat from car drivers coming from behind, however you should be able to hear them approaching you.

If however you have restricted movement they (mirrors) may be the best way for you to achieve a view from behind.

One size does not fit all and cyclists need to choose what is best for them and their level of cycling skills, plus the environment they ride in.

Given that the #SaveKidsLives programme is about adults changing their behaviour in designing roads, setting rules for roads and using roads, what initiatives do we need in this country to increase the levels of child cycling and choice for cycling that exist in other countries such as Norway, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium?

This is a very big question to answer in an online forum like this. I think it is really a political question.

As Road Safety Officers we are trying to work within the confines we have to keep people safe, which includes political and financial constraints.

What I will say is that many of the countries Rod refers to have different structures to us in terms of governance. Differing volumes of car occupancy and use, and often variations in things like tax levels, all which would have to be considered before we could compare what we do in the UK with these countries.

I think it is good to look at other countries and see how they deal with the issues, there are lots of things we can learn, but just because in happens in a different country does not mean it will automatically equate to working in this country without some significant alterations to things like investment in cycling, congestion and car occupancy.

By changing the infrastructure to accommodate all cyclists and improving road design, reducing speeds on roads, quiet routes and encouraging all cyclist to use these we may achieve a greater levels of cycling for all ages.

There needs to be more education to all including drivers, with a better degree of understanding that road space is for all road users and that it should be shared.

In the countries listed above the attitudes and behaviours have changed to accommodate these beliefs and they have lead the way in the changing of their country's infrastructure.

Great Britain is not there yet but there will be a step change. Some local authorities are already embracing these values and are leading the way. However this will not be achieved overnight and will only be achieved by education, enforcement and encouraging others to embrace this way of thinking.

#SaveKidsLives by sharing our roads and put vulnerable road users first.

Dear Elaine and Trish,
What do you think about the idea of designing high visibility bicycle vests in different colours and shapes? We know wearing cycling helmets and bright colours are very important. Recently I have started working on bicycle vests and try to make them more attractive for our kids. Thank you.

I think it is a great idea, but please don’t forget the reflectivity also. I think high visibility has a place in daylight – but the benefit from reflective strips/patterns, when cars use their head lights in dark or bad weather is also important.

I especially use a high visibility jacket when I am cycling on stretches of road, away from the built up area, where I want to give other road users the maximum available time to see me in the distance – which is where I think high visibility and reflective wear has the most impact.

Of course wearing high visibility wear is, like helmet wearing, an individual choice but I think the more choice we can give everybody (not just children) in terms of high visibility options, the better.

In general, to encourage greater use of high visibility vests or the wearing of high visibility clothing is a great idea.

You might like to do a little more research on this. The colour and the florescence of the material will hold different degrees of light and is for daylight. Some reflective colours are better that others.

Additionally the shape and where the reflective strips are placed on high visibility wear have to conform to standards, depending on the speed of the road, where they are being used and when they are being used, to ensure they meet Health and Safety standards. There are strict guidelines regarding this especially for those working on the highway.

I hope this helps and good luck on your venture

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