In Portland, Oregon state Representative Mitch Greenlick unleashed a wave of criticism last week after introducing a bill that would make it illegal to carry children under the age of six in bicycle trailers or on the back of bicycles.
Greenlick, a professor of public health at Oregon Health Sciences University, told the blog BikePortland he hoped to start a discussion by introducing the controversial bill, even though he is not aware of evidence that suggests children are being injured or killed at particularly high rates while riding in bike trailers.
I looked around to see what I could find in regards to statistics on the topic. In Multnomah County, the county that’s home to Portland, 43 children between the age of 1 and 15 were hospitalized between 2004 and 2006 in bicycle accidents, according to data published on the website of the Oregon Department of Human Services. Fifteen more kids in that age bracket were involved in bicycle accidents with motor vehicles. That's about 20 non-lethal bike accidents a year.
In contrast, 30 children in the same 1 to 15 year age group were hospitalized by automobile accidents during the same time period. And a much larger 414 children were injured by simple falls. About 12 were killed while either riding in cars or as a result of being struck by cars while walking.
Clearly, there are risks involved with bicycling since cyclists pose a fairly small percentage of total trips yet experience a comparatively high numbers of injuries. But how big are the risks? Rep. Greenlick’s original concern stemmed from an analysis of 962 bicycle commuters that Oregon Health Science University researchers published in November in the Journal of Trauma. If read quickly and carelessly (as some reporters did), the study reveals what what can seem like a surprisingly high rate of injuries.
Over the one-year study period, the authors found that 18 percent of study participants, all of whom commuted more than three times a week, reported a “traumatic event” of some sort, and 5 percent of them reported a “serious traumatic event.” This sounds ominous unless you consider how the authors defined their terms. Even minor injuries such as scrapes and bruises qualified as traumatic events. Meanwhile, traumatic event qualified as serious simply because the cyclist sought medical attention. The study was based on a self-reported online survey from Survey Monkey, and the authors made no attempt to confirm the veracity of responses with local medical providers.
The result: unsurprisingly, the study picked up significantly more injuries than similar studies of bicycle injuries have. As regular cyclists know well, riding, just like driving or playing soccer, can lead to injuries. The risk of experiencing such injuries can be reduced markedly by biking during the day, wearing reflective clothing and a helmet, and following traffic rules. Still, everything from irregularities in the road to overhanging branches can cause problems, usually, thankfully, minor ones.
I suppose banning biking entirely -- or banning kids from bike trailers in this case -- might prevent a few dozen injuries in Portland each year. Yet, before going that route, it’s critical to understand in comparison to what.
Exactly how many children are injured in bicycle trailers and how? How much safer -- if at all -- would children be if parents were required to drive rather than bike them around town? Might pushing kids into cars affect child obesity and diabetes rates? Might it promote other behavioral problems such as ADHD?
Non of these questions have been answered adequately. Ultimately, the topic requires careful thought and investigation before lawmakers consider imposing punitive laws on parents whom, in most cases, likely believe they are encouraging a safe and healthy activity by bicycling their children around town.