DEAR DOCTOR K: Summer is here, and my children are out all afternoon riding their bicycles. What can I do to make sure they're as safe as possible?
DEAR READER: Bicycling is a wonderful activity for children -- and for families. As with any sport, bicycling carries a risk of injury. Proper safety skills and equipment are essential for all children before heading out on the road.
It can be tricky to find a safe place to teach your child to ride a bike. The streets near your home may be too busy. My father taught me to ride a bike in the same place he taught me to drive a car: the parking lot of a large department store when the store was closed.
By far the most important safety measure is the use of a properly fitting bicycle helmet every time your child rides a bike. Helmets can reduce the risk of serious head injuries by 85 percent. And many states -- wisely -- require helmet use.
All helmets made in the United States today must meet standards set by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. It's important to make sure your child's helmet fits properly. A helmet that is too big or too loose will not provide the appropriate protection upon impact. A helmet needs to be worn in a level position, with the chin straps snug enough that the helmet does not move out of place when pushed from the side, front or back. Many helmets come with foam fitting pads of various sizes that can be placed inside the helmet and adjusted as the child's head grows.
If possible, purchase your child's helmet at a bike shop. The people who work there can make sure it fits properly. At the same time, get your child's bike checked for any mechanical problems and make sure the bike is the right size for your child. Most bike shops can do this for a small fee.
Children must also understand and follow the rules of the road. Be sure to go over the rules with your children when they are learning to ride. Review them periodically. Riding on the right side of the road and using hand signals appropriately may be the difference between avoiding an accident and causing one.
Many communities have set aside bike lanes or bike routes for riding. If these are available, encourage your child to use them instead of a busy street. They are much safer than regular city streets.
It's important to take precautions, but don't let them scare you or your kids off their bikes. Biking is a fun way to stay active. Regular exercise will keep your kids healthy now and also set them up for good health habits that can last a lifetime.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.