Guest blog by Sonya Allin
Photo by Robin Sutherland
I am a proud urban cyclist; some of my happiest moments are on the bike. When I had my daughter in 2009, it was a given for me that she would be a cyclist too. After all, urban cycling heavily informed her development; we were on the bike together almost every day when she was in the womb.
Once Sibi was able to get on a bike with me ex-utero, however, I found myself struggling to determine how best to make it happen. A rear-mounted seat, like the Britax or Co-Pilot, or front mounted bike seat, like the iBert or Yepp? How about a bike trailer, like the Chariot, or a cargo trike, like those made by Zigo or Bakfiets? Searching for bike seat reviews on Google pulled up dozens of possibilities.
To navigate this bike-seat information, I did what now comes naturally after many years in health care research. I turned to PubMed, an online open database of health care and safety information compiled by our friends in the U.S. at the National Library of Medicine.
PubMed does not reveal a huge amount of research dedicated to children’s bike seats, but what is does reveal includes a couple of details that surprised me. For one, research pretty conclusively shows that the majority of injuries related to mounted bike seats do not involve a car. In two separate surveys of kids’ injuries, almost 70% were the result of the bike tipping over. Moreover, half the time bike tipping hurt someone (in a third study) the bike had been standing still. Perhaps even more surprising, the injuries children sustained during some of these falls may have actually been made worse by the use of a seatbelt, particularly if the child was in a seat with a low back. This is because a seatbelt forces the child to fall with the bike instead of independently of it. Not wearing a seatbelt seems like an incredibly bad alternative, however, but there’s not enough data to really know.
Also surprising to me is the fact that roughly 20% of mounted bike seat injuries are because kids’ feet get caught in wheel spokes. Many seats now come with spoke guards or foot wells to prevent this, but it is not known if these design features really work. I sometimes see older kids with their feet dangling from the foot wells of bike seats, so I can imagine that foot wells may not be as effective as one might want to think.
However little information there is about the safety of mounted bike seats, there’s even less out there about the safety of bike trailers and cargo bikes. The little there is, though, suggests that injuries happen a lot less frequently when using a trailer. In a 2000 survey of 49 bike carrier injuries, for example, only 6 were associated with trailers. But then, you don’t see trailers on the street all that often, so the relatively small number of injuries associated with them kind of makes sense. The data also say that the most common injury, as with mounted bike seats, happens when kids fall. Because trailers are so much closer to the ground, though, these falls may be less harmful.
I have an anecdote to interject here. The family of Tyler, who is my daughter’s play school friend, has a beautiful Bakfiets cargo bike that is the envy of all our neighbors. One day, Tyler (the bike’s “cargo”) and his father were cycling down a narrow neighborhood street. As they were travelling, they were side swiped by a car. The bike fell over and both riders (father and child “cargo”) fell to the ground. When we met on the street a few days later, Tyler’s father explained how the bike had protected them; he said it felt like they were inside a tank. He and Tyler had both been emotionally shaken but the accident left no mark; even the bike was hardly scratched. It's still the same beautiful fortress-on-wheels that makes us all green with envy whenever it passes.
This makes me think carriers (like trailers) may be relatively safe, but I'm also quite sure something as heavy as the Bakfiets suffers in terms of its maneuverability and I wonder about kids inhaling car exhaust when they are so low to the ground. If given the opportunity to choose between a Bakfiets and a Wike or Chariot trailer, though, I think at this point I’d choose a Bakfiets for its tank-like qualities and urban ruggedness, and I’d probably limit my cycling excursions to streets without trucks, for example.
In the end, Sibi and I chose a high-backed, rear-mounted bike seat (a Co-Pilot), which has served us reasonably well. I made sure to buy a really sturdy kick-stand at the time I bought the seat so that we’d be more stable when she’s getting in and out. I also remind her to keep her feet in the foot wells, although this is becoming a challenge because her legs have grown long. I won’t even consider abandoning the seatbelt any time soon, because she’s a serious wiggler and because I know both the high back and her helmet offer some protection.
The Co-Pilot was inexpensive and my bike doesn't handle that much differently when I ride it with or without Sibi. What’s annoying about it though, is that it’s only good until 40 lbs or about 4 years of age. Sibi’s quickly approaching this limit, and I don’t know what we will do next. She can’t ride a bike on her own, and there are not many bike-mounted options out there for bigger kids (save for the BoBike or Yepp or Tail-gator, which definitely look like interesting options to explore). But are there data to tell us whether these bike-mounted options for bigger kids are equally safe on a city street? One hopes in a few years PubMed will have more to say on the matter… but for now, it seems we’re still riding, more or less, in the dark.
Sonya Allin is an adjunct research scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. She bikes with her daughter Sibi from the west side of Toronto to Sibi's downtown school, and then to work, almost every day.
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