By Katie Behroozi
It's high summer and families and kids are in vacation mode: going to camp, hitting the beach, hanging out at the pool.
Amidst all the summer fun, parents take water safety very seriously. We share articles like "Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning," ferry our kids back and forth to lessons for years, and watch them like hawks at the pool until we are confident that they are strong swimmers. Even then we typically don't let them swim alone in the ocean.
I sometimes wonder why more families don't take a similar approach to biking and road safety.
On the streets of Menlo Park there seem to be two extremes. On one hand, parental risk-aversion manifests in the form of streets clogged with minivans and endless school drop-off lines (even when the commutes can be measured in blocks, not miles). On the other hand, kids of all ages bike around town, seemingly unaware of basic safety skills and oblivious to the traffic and pedestrians around them.
What would it look like if we trained our kids to bike as we train them to swim?
We'd start in the shallow end: a controlled environment such as a cul-de-sac, soccer field, or driveway.
We'd take tire pressure, brake function, helmet fit and visibility (lights, reflective wear, etc.) as seriously as we do sun protection.
In addition to swim school, we'd send our budding riders to camps like Avid4 Adventure and WheelKids, where they'd learn more advanced skills, rules of the road, and group riding techniques from expert instructors.
Perhaps we'd even pressure our schools to make cycling safety a core part of the PE curriculum, as it is in Palo Alto.
Public swimming pools are controlled environments with lifeguards and physical boundaries. Street ecosystems, like the ocean, are more complicated and less predictable. Given the lack of lifeguards on the open roads of Menlo Park, we would accompany kids long after they have mastered the basic cycling skills, teaching and reinforcing basic traffic laws, pointing out potential dangers and talking through challenging situations as they arise.
Pools often require kids to take a swim test before they can use the deep end. Similarly, we should require our kids to master a fundamental set of safety skills and demonstrate consistent adherence to traffic laws before setting them loose to ride around town by themselves. (Think of this as the learner's permit phase.)
Then comes the hardest part: letting go. How will you know when your kid is ready? Of course every child is different, as is each family's situation, but experts suggest that around age 10, children start to develop the cognitive maturity to ride on the road unsupervised.
Grant independence in phases. Start with your immediate neighborhood before permitting your child to head to school or Burgess Park alone. Reverting to my water metaphor, the waves are bigger and the sharks more plentiful on streets such as Willow, Middlefield, Ravenswood, and Santa Cruz, so take these challenges into account when considering a route.
Continue to check in on your kids from time to time — especially if they are riding with groups of friends. (Peer pressure can have a strange amnesiac effect on a kid's road manners!)
Eventually your diligence will yield fruit. You'll be proud to know that your child can safely ride to water polo practice, violin lessons, or the grocery store. Your days of sitting in car lines or looking for parking at Burgess may be over, but more importantly, you'll have given your kid a leg up on the driving lessons that are just around the corner — and, if you're lucky, a lifelong appreciation for the unique convenience, freedom, and joy of cruising along on a bicycle.
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