Baby on Board: Bicycling with Your Child
By Paul B. Cooley
Issue 111, March - April 2002
When I finally worked up the courage to bicycle with my infant daughter, I discovered that drivers treated me with more politeness than I had been accustomed to, either as a bicyclist or a motorist. This new courtesy was a relief. Although bicycling in traffic with Sadie terrified me, the degradation of our environment and community caused by motor vehicle use, and the ease with which I fall into the habit of jumping into the car whenever I need to go somewhere, terrified me even more. I did not want to begin my life as a parent with the hypocrisy of decrying environmental degradation while driving ten blocks to the local supermarket. My wife, Laura, and I began to move toward a car-lite existence as soon as Sadie could sit and support her head confidently. According to statistics compiled in 1993 by Failure Analysis Associates, bicycling may be safer than driving. The risk of being involved in a fatal car accident is .47 per million exposure hours, while the comparable risk of a fatal bicycling accident is .26 per million exposure hours.1 By riding our bicycles, therefore, we are not only creating a better environment for our daughter but also reducing her chances of dying a traffic-related death.
The greatest fear in bicycling with a child is of being hit from behind, but this type of accident rarely occurs. More bicycle accidents take place on bicycle paths than on roads, and the majority of road accidents result when bicyclists do not follow traffic rules. Often a bicyclist will ride against traffic or on the sidewalk in the mistaken belief that doing so is safer. Bicyclists who do such things are less likely to be seen by motorists making left turns or emerging from side streets, which increases the risk of being involved in an accident. Riding at night without proper lighting is also asking for trouble. I never bicycle with my daughter after dark.
Before Sadie was born, Laura and I bought a Volvo station wagon, which, according to everything we had read, was one of the safest cars in an accident. The birth of our daughter heralded an unprecedented amount of driving for us. Each day I drove Sadie to my wife's workplace at 10:00 a.m. for her midmorning breastfeeding. My wife bicycled home at lunch to feed her again, then drove her truck back to work for the afternoon. I found the early months of being an at-home dad frustrating, and a large part of that frustration came from being confined to the house and car. Our daughter was born in October, and the winter's cold made hiking impossible. It seemed inconvenient to go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing with an infant whose feeding schedule did not allow us to go very far afield in the first place. In the summer we hiked in the local mountains but resented the time spent driving back and forth. Toward the end of the summer, Sadie and I prepared to make our first attempt to bicycle together. We acquired a child's seat and a helmet, which, even with the largest pads fastened inside, fell over Sadie's eyes. Her feet dangled far above the footrests. A pillow propped behind her kept the helmet from hitting the back of the seat.
Our first trip was nerve-racking. As we rode slowly around the block Sadie's helmet slipped over her eyes, and she began to cry. There's not much you can do to comfort a child while riding a bicycle, and stopping in the road didn't feel safe. On our next trip around the block, Sadie fell fast asleep. By that point she was either relaxed or traumatized; I've never decided which.
Soon we began to venture out onto the bike path near our house. The bike seat, however, never seemed like a particularly safe perch. Falling off was the most obvious danger. Even at the beginning of a ride, there was a chance Sadie would fall after I placed her on the seat and before I got on the bike. If she moved too suddenly, the whole contraption could come toppling down, and the bicycle helmet was much too loose to be more than symbolic protection. An alarmist manifesto on the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute's website magnified my fears.2 Every bump I went over, according to the article, was transferred directly to my daughter's spine. And how do you know if your child is experiencing spinal injury? Our healthcare provider assured us that there was nothing to worry about: Sadie was strong enough to ride with me. Furthermore, the fresh air would do her good. Still, the vulnerable position offered by the bike seat continued to haunt me.
Our solution was to buy a Burley trailer. We settled on the D'Lite model, which has room for two children and space for groceries behind the seat. It has an aluminum frame, a nylon body, a five-point harness, and clear vinyl windows that can be rolled down to keep out the rain and cold. It was expensive but, compared to the continued cost of using the car, seemed well worth it. If I should fall over on the bike, which I did one icy day, the trailer remains upright. It also comes equipped with a roll bar, so if it does tip Sadie is still protected.
Now we bicycle 12 miles each day, taking lunch to Mom at her office. After a long family lunch, Sadie and I bicycle back home or into town, stopping at the Children's Museum or a coffee shop. Often she falls asleep while we are traveling. Other times I turn around to see her waving to motorists as we wait at stoplights. The trailer holds a good collection of books and toys, and sometimes I can hear her singing and reading to herself as we trundle down the road.
Laura and I have made a conscious effort to use the car as little as possible. We recently sold our truck and are now a one-car family. We use it only once or twice a month; last week we filled the gas tank for the first time in six months. The trailer has proved invaluable, not only for transporting our daughter but also for our weekly grocery run. Because it is not as convenient to go to the store every time we crave a particular food, we have to plan our meals, which keeps us closer to our food budget. Personally, I feel much healthier and better able to deal with the pressures of parenthood.
In her book Divorce Your Car, Katie Alvord describes the history of automotive dependence, the degradation it causes to the environment and society, and the steps people are taking to break free of the automobile. Walking, bicycling, and public transportation bring communities together. I hope that my daughter is learning more about joy, hope, and health from being a part of a bicycling family.
1. See www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/health/risks.htm.
2. See www.bhsi.org.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Alvord, Katie. Divorce Your Car: Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile. New Society Publishers, 2000.
Bell , Trudy E., and Roxana K. Bell. Bicycling with Children: A Complete How-To Guide. Mountaineers Books, 1999.
Your local bike shop is the best resource for equipment, maps, and other information. Take the time to find one that is competent and trustworthy.
REI (www.rei.com) sells a wide variety of children's helmets, trailers, and seats on its website. Be sure you understand how to use the equipment properly.
Burley Design Cooperative ( 4020 Stewart Road , Eugene , Oregon , 97402 ; 800-311-5294, 541-687-1644; www.burley.com) is the leading manufacturer of trailers, trailercycles, and tandems.
Rivendell Bicycle Works ( 2040 North Main Street , Walnut Creek , California 94596 ; 925-933-7304; www.rivendellbicycles.com) offers a small line of cycling clothing, saddles, panniers, and saddlebags made of natural materials.
The League of American Bicyclists ( 1612 K Street NW, Suite 401 , Washington , DC 20006-2082 ; 202-822-1333; www.bikeleague.org) is the country's oldest and largest bicycling advocacy and education organization. Its website contains information about national and local legislation as well as contact information for local advocacy groups.
Paul B. Cooley is an at-home dad and writer in Santa Fe , New Mexico . He writes about parenting and is currently working on a novel. Paul and his wife, Laura, have two children: Sadie, now 2, and Zebediah, who was recently born at home.
Photo by Randy Freeman.