Sunday, 13 November 2016

Carrying kids on bikes - starting age, methods, safety and practicalities

Summary: If you and your partner have a bike-based lifestyle and then have a child, there's a lot to figure out regarding how to get around by bike until the kid is old enough to ride the trip themselves.

Our daughter Luka is now 10 months old and we are keen to start making bike trips with her. Until she is riding all types of trips herself (~5 years old), I'll be keeping this post updated with our decisions and answers to all of the common issues that arise including:

- What age is safe and practical to carry a child using a bike for common methods (centre versus rear kid seats, box bikes, rear trailers, etc)?

- What carrier methods are safest, most practical, and most affordable?

- Whether helmets are necessary for all ages and methods? And, if using a helmet, how to do so safely for infants? Are there alternatives to helmets for infants under 1 year?

- How to best deal with practicalities like the child needing to rest their head or nap?

- How to create genuinely safer routes including using off-road paths and footpaths in the safest way?

- How to ride with your partner and child so that the trip is as safe, stress-free and enjoyable as possible?

- The relevant laws and regulations that apply in Australia (starting age, helmets, footpath use, recommended minimum ages from manufacturers, etc)

Our Situation: Our daughter Luka has been in a Croozer Kid for 2 bike trailer and on a WeeRide centre-mounted bike seat since 10.5 months of age (she's much happier in the trailer). The WeeRide is too upright and the harness isn't great so I recommend a second-hand Yepp or Thule bike seat instead. She wears a Lazer Bob 46-52cm bike helmet in the bike seat but not in the trailer as she is happier with it off, the trailer is safer, and I ride very safely. (She'll start wearing a helmet in the trailer for some trips involving more on-road and high speed travel at around 2-3 years age). We use the bike seat only for very short trips when the trailer is too unsuited due to its size. The trailer is used for most trips (especially longer trips), when she'll need to nap in it or have weather protection, or when we need it as a stroller or for storage. At around 3 years, for the bike seat trips, she will switch to a rear seat as speeds will be higher and it's safer to brake with significant weight at the back rather than front.

The Guardian

Details:

1. The most useful quick guides answering common queries for Australians

I'll collate the most useful guides below:

> Victorian Law Foundation - Bikes and children

> BikeWise - Carrying children on bikes


2. What are the different options for carrying kids on bikes and what are their pros and cons?

Essentially they are:

- Bike trailers designed or modified to carry kids. The more expensive models (e.g. Croozer) also double as strollers when detached)
- Bike seats mounted on a rack at the rear
- Bike seats mounted at the front on the head tube, stem or handlebars (e.g. Yepp Mini, Thule Ride Along)
- Bike seats mounted in the centre behind the handlebars (e.g. WeeRide)
- Dutch-style bakfiets ("box bikes"). Most boxes are at the front. A few (e.g. Madsen) are at the rear
- Modern, versatile versions of the bakfiets like the ZigoTaga 1.0 (bike/stroller) and Taga 2.0 (modular bakfiets)
- Longtail or midtail (in between) bikes which have elongated lengths allowing for carrying multiple kids directly on a saddle (not individual seats). These can be perfect for 2-3 kids aged between 3 and 7. E.g. Yuba Bikes, Workcycles Fr8, Xtracycle
- Tag-along kids bikes attached to the rear frame. The simpler tow-bar type which just attach existing adult and kids bikes are much cheaper and more flexible.

It's not recommended to carry infants in slings in any position or with proper baby carriers at the back, as when you fall it will often involve hitting your side or back. In the Netherlands some parents do carry babies in proper carriers (e.g. Ergo) at the front on short, safe, smooth rides if able to ride very upright. All of these "on your body" options aren't legal in Australia and are very rare, so I don't cover them in detail below.

The suitability of the different options typically varies with the child's age and type of trip. It is common to start with a 10-12 month old in a front/centre-mounted child seat. When they are too big or heavy (around 2 years old) they typically move to a rear-mounted child seat. And when they are old enough not to need a 5 point harness they can ride in box bikes or rear rack bench seats. Trailers - which are more cumbersome - are used for longer trips, when a convertible stroller is desired, or when the child needs to sleep at some stage.

A good explanatory video of the common options and typical stages is below:

The Guardian - A guide to carrying your child on a bicycle

A detailed blog post on the many options available between 6 months (car seats in box bikes) and school age is here:
> Totcycle - Family Biking Ages & Stages

The best buying guide website for bike equipment for kids including bike seats is: Two Wheeling Tots

For example, it discusses the various pros and cons of different child seats.

- Some harnesses are better positioned (less likely to slip off shoulders), more comfortable and easier to adjust.
- Some front seats are only useable on larger bike frames as they extend further back toward the adult.
- Mounting can differ and you need to choose a bike seat that will mount readily to your adult bike and is practical to take on and off. If you need to take the seat on and off often you'll want to make sure this is very quick and simple.

Personally, I would recommend against the WeeRide as being centre-mounted even on my large bike it takes up too much space thus requiring me to keep my seat lower than desireable so I can reach the ground while seated (I can't shift forward easily to put my foot down). The WeeRide also has the harness positioned a bit too low and is not as comfortable. Lastly, depending on how you are forced to position the lateral metal bar the seat sits on, the seat can be too upright for comfort. I would advise having a slight reclining angle.

The one advantage of centre-mounted seats is the weight isn't as forward on the bike or affecting steering, but the quality front-mounted seats (e.g. Yepp, Thule) are safe and stable till the child weighs 15-20kg. Based on experience, your child's own weight, and your riding circumstances (speed, etc) you can then decide to shift to using a rear seat or only a trailer when they are too heavy for the front.

See:
Two Wheeling Tots - Child Bike Seats: Comparison Charts
> Bike Hub - Carrying children on bikes
> 99 Bikes - Baby Seats and Child Trailers
> Totcycle - All about front child seats
> road.cc - The best cycling child seats and trailers


3. What does Australian law and standards say about children on bikes including age restrictions, helmets, type of carrier/seat and footpath use?

The key laws applying to kids can be found at the links below:

VicRoads
> Road Rules - Bicycles
Wearing a bicycle helmet
Helmet tips for parents & carers
Learning to ride

Victorian Law Foundation
Bike Law
Bikes and children

Key points include:

- There is no Australian law that sets a minimum age for a child being carried by bike
- Contrary to advice of some bike trailer vendors, helmets are legally required for passengers. In Victoria this is Road Rule 257 - Riding with a person on a bicycle trailer. (I don't abide by this rule for very safe, mostly off-road bike path trips as my child is much happier with the helmet off and can rest or sleep more easily).
- Bicycle trailers should be designed to carry children as Road Rule 257 requires that the trailer can safely carry the person
- Children under 12 can ride on footpaths as well as adults carrying children or supervising them
- While Australian State Road Rules don't specifically refer to all types of family bikes (box bikes, stroller bikes, varying child seats) the helmet requirement seems to apply to all riders and passengers

There are also legally-mandated Australian Standards applying to bikes and helmets but not other types of child carriers like child seats or trailer harnesses or baby slings. However, a private organisation - Standards Australia - does have a voluntary standard applying only to rear-mounted child seats.

An excellent article explaining the current situation regarding laws and standards for bicycle child-carriers is this:
> WeeRide Australia - Does the WeeRide meet Australian Safety standards?


4. What is the minimum age it's safe for an infant to be on a bike and which method is safest?

In the few places where specific laws exist, they typically specify a minimum age of 12 months. In Australia, there is no minimum age law. A minimum age is imprecise anyway as what really matters is the developmental readiness of the child and the appropriateness of the way they are carried and for how long.

From a health perspective the key danger is neck and spine injury if they aren't strong enough to hold their head up for the period required or adjust their position if uncomfortable. The other often-mentioned risk (to the brain) for infants under 12 months is from sustained exposure to heavy vibrations.

Nevertheless, in places like Copenhagen or the Netherlands it is common for babies to be carried on bikes before they're even 3 months old. In these cases they are in car seats (or similar seats made for bikes) that are securely fitted to box bikes or racks with special equipment. But you need to remember the cycling conditions in such cities are much better. Not just safer but the ride is usually much smoother. In Australia, it is inevitable for most trips that there will be plenty of bumps - such as when travelling on the footpath and crossing intersections or even driveways.

Unless you are eliminating injury risks through various additional efforts, I would recommend a minimum age of around 9 months in Australia. And, even then, you should ensure the infant has well passed the point of being able to sit upright and hold their head up for the period of time needed:
It's not so much a question of age, but of physical development. Infants vary a lot as to the age at which they are able to sit up unaided (as in sitting in the middle of the carpet, playing with toys etc), which is when they are ready to ride in the usual sort of bicycle child seat. Usually this is about nine months. And the length of your cycle ride between stops for some other activity should not exceed the length of time they are content to do that."
The Guardian - When can you put your baby on your bike?
For most Australians - where helmets are mandatory for all passengers - the minimum age may be practically limited by the age when their child fits the smallest helmet and is happy to wear it. The exception is those who use trailers without helmets (possibly infant slings under 9 months) or fit car seats into box bikes and feel this is safe enough even though not strictly legal.

In our experience, at around 8 months Luka could easily hold her head up but her head wasn't quite big enough to have a tight fit in a 46cm helmet. And she didn't seem that happy to have a helmet on. At 10 months her head was big enough and she didn't mind having a helmet on as much but not for too long and less so in the trailer where it interfered with her reclined head position.

There's no objective, universal way of comparing the safety of the different carrier methods for infants. It will mostly depend on your circumstances. However, an infant should definitely be strapped in tight (not just sitting unharnessed) and have suitable head protection (a helmet or be in a car seat or similar).

If there is little chance of your trailer accidentally flipping (e.g. hitting a kerb or other obstruction) and the ride won't be too bumpy then they may be preferable as the infant has much less distance to fall than if on a child seat.

But a front or centre mounted seat can also be safe when used by a competent cyclist who eliminates the risk of a spill. They will also suffer a bit less vibration than trailers if the bike tyres are wide enough, tyre pressure not too high, and care is taken with bumps. A rear mounted seat is not adviseable for infants as you can't monitor things like their head position or discomfort as easily.

However, the most important thing is simply choosing where and how to ride. The younger the child the more conservative you should be. In particular, you should keep speeds below 15km/hr, eliminate sharp deceleration and minimise bumps.


5. From a safety (not legal) perspective do kids always need a helmet regardless of type of carrier? Is there any alternate head safety gear?

Helmets need to fit well to provide worthwhile protection, otherwise they may risk spine and neck injury, especially for infants. They shouldn't be too heavy for the child, including when they're tired. And they should be round and not jut out at the front or back such that they might twist their head if they are resting their head.

The smallest helmets I could find sold in Australia for infants have a head circumference of 44cm and most are a minimum of 46cm. Many infants much younger than 12 months have head circumferences over 44-46cm. Nevertheless, my research indicates most manufacturers of helmets sold in Australia recommend a minimum age of 12 months. Luka's head circumference was about 43cm at age 9.5 months and she fitted a 46cm helmet at 10.5 months. The helmet she wears is a Lazer Bob 46-52cm.

In the Netherlands it's common to see toddlers and small kids - who could comfortably wear helmets - riding as passengers without them. In Australia circumstances are very different, not just cycling conditions but cyclist skills as well. I'd suggest that unless riding in a way similar to jogging with a pram (low speeds, no risk of tipping over or crashes), that helmets are always needed for bike seats and should be used for bike trailers unless the child is very young (under 2 years) and the helmet interferes with a comfortable head position.

If cycling in extremely safe confitions it may be justifiable to use a bakfiets + car seat or trailer + sling without a helmet for infants under 10 months who can't wear helmets safely or comfortably. If using a bike trailer and riding in very safe circumstances then it may be pragmatic to not use a helmet, especially if it greatly aids comfort or sleep. Though when riding on roads or speeds are higher, it's adviseable for a child to wear a well-fitting helmet that they can still rest in a comfortable way. I'm not aware of any alternate head safety gear for younger infants that is recommended and accessible.

If getting a bike trailer, choose a quality one that has space for the helmet to sit rather than the cheap models that push the head forward when a helmet is worn.

Australians who are tempted to take their kids on bike seats helmet-free should also consider if there is a better way to deal with the source issue. For example:

- If an infant finds a helmet uncomfortable it is probably best to wait till they're 9-12 months old and try again.
- If the helmet doesn't fit well then you'll need to wait till their head is big enough. If it is big enough, look for helmets designed for infants like the Lazer Bob. They are small, light and the size and fit can be adjusted using bands and inserts. The Lazer Bob cost $36, and its 52cm max size should give it a lifetime of ~2 years, so saving money should not be an issue.
- A well-fitting helmet without protusions may not affect the child's ability to nap if there is a comfortable position possible.
- Children can be fussy about things they see as optional. Given you'll want your child to be riding themselves and so wearing a helmet is inevitable at some stage, it makes sense to just make putting on a helmet a consistent part of the bike riding experience.
- Don't force it and try getting them used to a helmet for short periods as a game at home if necessary.

Note: I am not absolutely pro-helmets for adults but the risk to young kids from even very low speed falls is considerable as they do not have the same capacity to use their hands to protect their heads when falling. After around 10-14 months of age all kids can adjust to wearing suitable helmets and so it shouldn't be a barrier to cycling.


6. What can be done to enable children to rest or sleep safely and comfortably on bikes?

Quality kid-specific bike trailers are generally best as the child is reclined and the seat is soft and can adjust to their body position. A well-fitting helmet without protusions shouldn't affect the child's ability to nap in these trailers which have a space behind the seat for the helmet to sit in rather than forcing the head forward.

Kids from 9 months to 3 years that fit on front or centre mounted seats can also nap if these seats come with a suitable padded "dashboard" in front of them. This is a key reason I bought the WeeRide rather than other models.

While children under 2 years of age can sometimes be large enough to safely ride on a rear seat when awake, it is better for them not to rest or sleep without head support. Past a certain age and stage of development the neck will definitely be strong enough that it doesn't matter if they nod off on a bike and get bumped around a bit for a short time. But most children under 2 years should be protected from having their heads jolted around while they nap.

Whatever method you use, if your child's head is not supported well for sleep then it is better to stop and let them sleep while stationary. If this is inconvenient then you may simply have to plan trips better around their nap times. Or use a proper bike trailer for such trips - this is the main reason we bought our Croozer bike trailer.


7. How to choose the safest and most comfortable routes when cycling with kids in Australia

Below are some concise tips:

- Plan the safest routes in advance using Google Maps Bicycling layer and other local cycling maps and resources. Ask local cyclists who ride with kids.

- Leave plenty of time so that you aren't rushed and don't have to speed or take unnecessary risks.

- While it is legal to ride on the footpath with kids under 12, this can offer a false sense of security. Special care needs to be taken at intersections, driveways and any other place others may be crossing.

- It is often safer and more comfortable to ride on-road on quiet back streets than on the footpath. Particularly signed cycle routes or ones that are popular with cyclists.

- When carrying infants you should take special care to reduce bumps and vibrations, especially if using a bike trailer or carrier method that transmits a lot of vibration. Prioritise smoother routes (e.g. shared paths), reduce speed on bumpy sections like coming on and off the footpath, and avoid cobblestones (or similar surfaces) entirely. Also ride with wider tyres and lower pressure.

- Avoid steep climbs or descents or walk them if safer.

- Ride with your partner or others where possible such that an adult can observe children in trailers or rear seats. You will also find it more comfortable to ride on-road when it makes sense if there is an adult bringing up the rear.

- If using a trailer you need to be conscious of the extra width behind you, braking and turning smoothly, going very slowly through narrow passages, and avoiding kerbs or surfaces that may jolt the trailer.


8. Other general tips on cycling with kids

Some other general tips include:

- Don't rush it or force it or persist till they give in. It's better to be patient, take baby steps, stop whenever something isn't working, and focus on enjoyment and fun.

- Remember that your child is likely to get tired of being stuck in one place regardless of whether it's a box, trailer or seat. If very young they may just want to shift position, be held, feed or rest. After 9 months it's likely they just want to move, touch things and interact. You should plan for regular stops.

- If cycling with a bike seat that doesn't leave enough crotch space to dismount by coming off your seat you'll need to lower your seat so that you can safely stop and reach the ground while seated.

- Whether riding with a child in a bike seat, in a trailer, or in a box bike, it takes some skill and experience to ride with safety, comfort and convenience, and to optimise enjoyment for yourself and the child. Test ride the most suitable options and find what works and feels best. Invest the time and effort in refining things to create the best experience.

- Some family bike options and accessories can be very expensive. While some parents find them worthwhile for their circumstances others tend to regret their initial choices and switch or ride much less than they expected. It's worthwhile trying things out properly before committing to expensive purchases. You can borrow for free seats, trailers and family bikes on sharing sites like Streetbank.com. Or rent them at low cost via sites like Spinlister.com

- Make sure the bike gearing is easy enough with the child and any other loads. If you have to push too hard on the pedals to move the bike when starting or facing resistance (hills, wind, load) this can be dangerous as if your feet slip it will throw the bike off balance.


Further Info:

Bike Portland
Carrying your infant by bike: How young is too young?
With six kids and no car, this mom does it all by bike

BikeWise
Carrying children on bikes

WeeRide
> WeeRide sold by Cell Bikes

Croozer Bike Trailer
> FAQs

Two Wheeling Tots
Child Bike Seats: What to Look For
Child Bike Seats: Comparison Charts
Bike Trailers: What to Look For
Kids and Toddler Bike Helmets: What to Look For

Helmets.org
Helmets and Carriers for Children
Should You Take Your Baby Along?
> Why Can't I Find an Extra Small Helmet?

Dutch Cargo Bikes
> Family cargo bikes

Bakfiets en Meer
> Test: Carrying a newborn on a bike

Thudguard

Totcycle
> Baby on a bicycle?

Bike Hub
Carrying children on bikes

Hum of the city

Wiki.ezvid.com
10 Best Bike Child Seats

The Guardian
A guide to carrying your child on a bicycle

Icebike.org
The Truth About Bike Trailers for Kids and Babies
Why A Baby Bike Trailer Might Not Be The Best Choice

Treehugger
A mom's guide to biking with babies

Grist
Babes in bikeland: Advice for cycling with kids

Citylab
Ask CityLab: Can I Bike With My Baby?

Bicycle Dutch
Cycling with a baby
Cycling with babies and toddlers

Dutch Bike Bits
Steco Baby-Mee child seat support (attach baby car seat to rear rack)

Momentum Magazine
How To Bike With Newborns

Travelling Two
Baby’s First Bike Tour: At What Age?

Bakfiets En Mier
> Test: Carrying a newborn on a bike

Essential Baby
> Family cycling: options for carrying kids on bikes

Vicroads
Helmet tips for parents & carers

Carrying Children on Bikes - Trailer versus Kid Seat

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