Every time we ride on the road – and sooner or later we must – we must be aware of the DANGER cars represent. Many tip givers recommend that children ride only on bicycle trails or sidewalks. That’s normally decent and well-meaning advice. However, I don’t recommend this practice in its entirety and I don’t necessarily like people riding on sidewalks as that can represent a trap to the innocent. I warn my children (or any new cyclist) that driveways on sidewalks can be very dangerous; unlike road riding oftentimes you do not expect cars to enter driveways from the road (they may not be in your line of vision or they may be hidden by bushes or what have you and, what’s worse, as a cyclist you are not in their line of vision!). Also, when driving on sidewalks your guard may be down since you’re cruising down what appears to be a safe sidewalk with no traffic. Beware!
Of course, no rule is absolute. Not all roads are the same and not all sidewalks are created equal. I believe that children may/will try different things despite our warnings and best wishes. I know I did. Hence, I prefer to teach my children (and now my wife) how to ride on the road. I do so on little-transited roads, obviously – we live in a rural community – but I do know that sooner or later my children will want to cycle on their own, with their friends, and I won’t be there to supervise their every move.
Road riding will require an understanding of basic bike handling. One must be totally comfortable on the bike, must be able to ride straight as an arrow, stop on a dime, etc. This we must do before riding on the road. (Basic safety issues, helmets, gloves, etc., must be a given. No child should ride without a helmet, regardless of what parents think of how they ride themselves. Safety when in doubt first, philosophical issues of freedom and well-meaning self-expression second. My respectful opinion, of course.)
One technique I’ve used with my children is the Spy Behind Your Helmet Trick. This was inadvertently developed by my son. Sure enough one day he wanted to ride our normal road route – which we had done together hundreds of times – all by himself. He was eight years old. This was the safest route I could find for my children, with little traffic but always with some cars passing us, etc. (But remember that it only takes one careless car or one careless cyclist to cause an accident, so we must never let our guard down despite what may appear to be a safe road.) I let my son ride thinking that he was unsupervised while I simply spied on him from my own bike back in the distance without him knowing it. It was not comforting to me at all, believe me. "What if something goes wrong?" "Am I sure that this is right?" If anything had happened there would be nothing I could do, but then again I had to convince myself that there would be little I could do if he had wanted to ride around the neighborhood with his friends.
And so it went and I was able to verify that he not only remembered what we had gone over and over, but was in fact very respectful of traffic when he was unsure, stopping his bike on the edge of the road if need be and waiting for cars to pass safely. This worked well and we continue to practice it on different routes, expanding the distance and the responsibilities involved. (My daughter, who is less the cyclist, also went through the same routine though she claimed she had a “feeling of being watched”.) Oh well.
Eventually children and beginners must venture on their own. It is a fallacy to think that we can protect them from the world. And over-protecting, well, let each parent make those decisions. We cannot do the impossible so we might as well face reality and give children the knowledge and tools to enjoy life with the greatest safety available to them.