Wisconsin Department of Transportation

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Bicycle crash prevention and protection

Helmet use | Child safety tips | Frequent child errors | Injuries and fatalities

Bicycle crashes, like most crashes, can and should be prevented. Operator error, either by bicyclist, motorist or by pedestrian, is the cause of more than 90% of bicycle crashes.

  • Children are particularly prone to error-related crashes. Child errors account for more than 90% of all child bicycle crashes.
  • In contrast, 60% of adult bicycle crashes are the result of motorist, not bicyclist, error. The most common is a left turn across the path of an oncoming bicycle.
  • A frequent and unexpected error among both adult and child bicyclists is riding the wrong way in traffic. Wrong-way bicycle riding is involved in 1/3 of all bicycle-motor vehicle crashes.

Helmet use

Every bicyclist wearing a helmet correctly each time they get on a bicycle can help prevent more than 85% of head injuries when crashes do happen. And they will happen! More than half of all bicycle crashes are simple falls caused by operator error, bicycle condition, riding surface condition, or a distraction causing a sudden swerve.

Only 10-20% of bicycle crashes involve a motor vehicle. Head injury is the most common serious injury in bicycle crashes with motor vehicles. Many simple falls also involve head and brain injury, a type of injury in which the victim does not always completely recover. Brain and head injuries can be prevented, or significantly reduced, by correctly and consistently wearing a helmet.

Only the city of Port Washington in Wisconsin has an ordinance requiring children 16 and under to wear a bicycle helmet. This was enacted with the community's support and at the request of several parents after a tragic child bicyclist crash. The state legislature has considered enactment of a helmet law for children, but so far has not taken this step.

Child bicyclist safety tips

Before you let your child ride a bicycle unsupervised, on the street, or on paths and sidewalks that intersect with streets, make sure that they meet the following criteria:

  • The child can balance and look over left shoulder for traffic from behind and keep bike going straight.
  • The child has completed on-bicycle instruction in basic traffic skills.
  • The child has developed judgment skills to decide how to interact with all other road users.
  • The child has developed perceptual ability to see, hear, understand signs and signals, and react correctly in traffic.

Most children cannot meet all of the above criteria until 3rd or 4th grade, or older. Adult supervision is essential for all children until they do, and a wise parent or teacher checks frequently to make sure the child follows good safety practices and parental bicycling rules.

  • All bicyclists, including children, should ride on the street, going the same direction as other traffic, not facing the motor vehicles.
  • 1/3 of all crashes between bicycles and motor vehicles involve bicycles going in the wrong direction.
  • Sidewalk riding by young children just learning should be closely supervised by an adult. Sidewalks have even more intersections many blocked by trees, shrubs, or other objects, than do streets and roads. As soon as basic traffic skills are mastered, the bicyclist should ride on the street, not the sidewalk.

Parents who ride bicycles can model good safety practices. Always wear your helmet and replace your helmet or your child's any time it is involved in a crash. The small cost of buying or replacing a helmet can prevent the need for an emergency room visit or hospital stay.

Frequent child errors and ages most likely to occur

Error Occurrence Good News
Driveway ride-out: not stopping and/or not looking for traffic at end of driveway or edge of curb before entering street Up to 30% of child crashes ages 5-9, most frequently Marking end of driveway and setting rules help children avoid this error. Parental Rules: Small children do not cross the mark at end of drive, bigger kids walk bike to end of drive, stop first before looking and then, when no traffic is passing and with pedal in "power position," leave drive and enter travel area of street or road.
Stop sign ride-out: not stopping, or stopping and not really looking before riding into intersection Up to 30% of child crashes ages 10-14, most frequently Children this age want to know the rules of the road and why they are important. They may not yet understand who is supposed to yield, but they do understand "stop" means "stop". Good examples by both bicyclists and motorists are the best way to teach actual "stop and look" behavior.
Sudden swerve in front of motor vehicle: child wants to go to left side of street, or turn left but fails to look behind for other vehicles (this is not same crash type as overtaking motorist) Up to 30% of child crashes ages 10-14, most frequently This is the easiest skill to teach children regarding bicycling in traffic. Even a non-bicycling parent can teach this: Have child ride in protected space with long riding distance, look back several times keeping bike moving straight as possible and identify a color, number of fingers or other item adult holds up. When straight riding and perfect identification occurs, then check to be sure child knows it is other vehicles for which they are really going to be looking.
Wrong way riding Nearly 1/3 of all crashes, both child and adult involve a bicyclist going against traffic! Even adults can learn to be safer bicyclists, and parents can give correct instructions to their children, if they know what the safe practices are.

Injuries and Fatalities

Bicyclists in Wisconsin are statistically less likely to be injured than the average US bicyclist. However, Wisconsin's bicycle injury rates follow the same age patterns as national statistics.

Males in Wisconsin are more likely to be killed or injured in bicycle crashes than females. This holds true in nearly every age category. Overall, males are roughly three times more likely to be killed in bicycle crashes.

Age is also a factor in Wisconsin bicycle related injuries and deaths. Children ages 5 to 14 make up only 14% of the population but account for over half of all bicycle injuries.

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Questions about the content of this page:
Larry Corsi, larry.corsi@dot.wi.gov

Last modified: February 15, 2012

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