Jodie Plumert, Ph.D.
Jodie Plumert, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair, Psychology
University of Iowa

Kids on Bicycles (Elementary to Middle School)

Why safety depends on both spatial perception and physical action

Sometimes, the ability to coordinate spatial perception with physical action can actually make a difference between life or death.

Consider kids and bicycles. What governs a child’s safety when he or she comes to a busy intersection?

The stakes can be enormous. Bicycle crashes rank among the most common causes of severe injuries in childhood, with young people highly represented among the 600,000 bike-related ER visits annually. A sizable portion of those injuries stem from car-meets-bike collisions.

Bicycle simulatorTo get a better handle on how riders perform when trying to select a safe gap in which to cross intersections, we launched a project using a bicycle simulator and a virtual environment.

When you think about it, such an act is quintessentially a visual-spatial challenge. How fast are the cars moving? How far apart must they be to enter the intersection safely? It is also a motor issue. How quickly can the rider propel the bicycle through the intersection?

We programmed our simulator with car speeds at no more than 35 miles per hour, and each bicycle rider crossed several virtual intersections with cross traffic that didn’t stop. Their job was to cross each intersection without getting “hit” by a car.

After compiling data from riders from two major age groups—one between the ages of 10-12 and the other a group of adults aged 20-25—our findings looked very robust.

One of the most striking findings was that both children and adults chose the same size temporal gaps, but children had less time to spare between themselves and the approaching vehicle when they crossed the intersection.

What we observed was that, relative to adults, children delayed in getting started and took longer to reach the roadway, putting more of the children at risk for collisions.

We attribute this finding to immature perceptual-motor functioning, skills that typically improve with age and practice. Perhaps obviously, we also learned that denser traffic demands more precise timing for safe crossing.

What, then, can parents and caregivers glean from this? Kids take longer to cross the road—longer to coordinate when and where to cross with the physical acts of pushing off, pedaling, steering, and crossing. Teaching kids to use caution when they cross—or, better yet, to use crosswalks and wait for the light—is the best choice when it comes to bike safety