Safety Measures and Recommendations
In order to reduce the risk of accidents, German law states that children must keep to the sidewalk up to the age of eight. They are still permitted to cycle on the sidewalk after this, until they reach the age of ten. From this point onwards, children must use bicycle paths or the road, just like adults. By this point at the latest, their means of transport must comply with the relevant provisions of the German Road Traffic Licensing Regulation (StVZO). It is also indisputable that the use of a helmet when cycling is an important precaution in further improving safety. Surveys show that 76 percent of children aged between six and ten in Germany wear a helmet; however, this figure drops to just 29 percent in the ten to sixteen age group. The idea of making helmets a legal requirement is an issue that has been raised again and again in Germany, but its advocates have so far failed to push such legislation through. Even helmets for children are merely recommended and not mandatory.
One important means of improving the safety of children on bicycles is bicycle training courses. Such courses make children feel safer – including on a subjective level – and are most effective when taken in real traffic situations. However, protected spaces such as school playgrounds are also suitable environments for training motor abilities. In Germany, children are usually given bicycle training in fourth grade. These courses teach them theory (traffic regulations) and also require them to complete practical exercises, usually in the sheltered environment of a traffic training area. At the end of the course, the children then take a bicycle test as a means of documenting the successful completion of their bicycle training.
The German Road Safety Council (DVR) recommends that parents do not allow their children to ride a bicycle on their own to school or in their free time until they have taken their bicycle training and passed their bicycle test. Many schools in Germany have strict rules regarding the circumstances under which children are permitted to cycle to school. Children should first have completed practice runs with their parents to hone their motor skills to a reliable level, familiarize them with the route, and engender an awareness of the potential risks along the route. Allowing a child to get used to cycling will increase their subjective sense of safety.
In addition to safety measures taken at the personal level for each individual child, however, infrastructure considerations such as safe traffic routing are also necessary in order to both increase objective safety and make the children feel safer. At the end of the day, this is what will determine whether cycling is accepted as a means of transport. Cycling is a desirable means of transport for children of school age providing it comes with the experience of being treated as an equal by other road users.
Parents as role models
The importance of observational learning and modeling in determining whether certain behaviors are adopted during childhood is widely accepted in the field of psychology of learning. According to Albert Bandura's “modeling” theory, an emotional relationship or similarity between the model and the observer, higher status on the part of the model, the prospects of success, and the potential positive consequences of adopting the behavior in question all stimulate the learning process.
If we apply these findings to traffic and the way children learn how to act on and around roads, it becomes obvious that parents occupy a position of high value as “objects of observation” in this process. This applies particularly between the ages of around twelve and fourteen, which is the earliest point at which children can be expected to have developed to a sufficient level all the skills and abilities necessary to act as independent road users. Due to the close connection they share with their children, parents will inevitably become role models to them. This is borne out by the way that children follow the example of their parents. Parents are very much aware of this, and adhere to traffic regulations far more often in the presence of their children than when alone or in adult-only groups. Despite their best efforts, however, they do not always manage to act as good role models all the time. One possible reason for this is that not all parents are able to reflect on and critique their own automatic behavior, and thus (more or less subconsciously) pass the wrong or dangerous behavioral traits on to their children. In light of this issue, other socialization authorities (kindergarten and school) have a critical role to play in giving children the tools they need to become safe and responsible road users using a mixture of objective theory and practical teaching.
On the issue of bicycle helmets, there is a very clear discrepancy between what parents teach their children and how they actually behave. According to the "Deutsche Verkehrswacht" (German Road Safety Volunteer Organization), while three in four children wear bicycle helmets, the same can only be said for around one in six adults. The reasons for this are often trite – fashion is one factor that is mentioned particularly often – and entirely disproportionate to the increased risk of accident and injury. This is in spite of the fact that parents are extremely important role models when it comes to wearing helmets; indeed, it is difficult to think of another road use safety measure where learning by example plays such a significant role. By always wearing their helmets when cycling, parents increase the acceptance among their children of doing the same – and if they give their children the chance to choose their own helmets, they will have done everything they can to encourage them to enjoy wearing a bicycle helmet.