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7 Biking Safety Tips as You Pedal into Winter

Tuesday, October 19 2010

Written by Donna Emert

Going green can be fatal unless you don a helmet and lose the headphones

MOSCOW, Idaho – Many hard core bikers pedal in rain, sleet and dark of night, heedless of the hour of day or season of the year, warmed, maybe a little, by that small light of righteousness in their souls that continues to fuel the green revolution.

Unintentional injuries – accidents that could be prevented – are the leading cause of death in the Western world. As they enter into the icy winter months, featuring 4 p.m. sunsets and streets like an Olympic luge track, bikers may benefit from a few well researched safety tips.

Ben Barton, University of Idaho assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Communication Studies, is one of only a few safety experts across the nation whose research focuses on the psychological and behavioral aspects of driver, biker and pedestrian safety.

“People think of safety as a common sense thing that basically boils down to being responsible,” said Barton. “But we know from the research that we can engineer to increase safety, as we do with safety helmets. We also can enact behavioral change. One of the big factors in safety is personality. If you have an impulsive, thrill seeking personality, that correlates to riskier behavior – in walking, biking and driving.”

Bike safety is like gun safety, says Barton. “There are habits and routines you need to know and practice, like wearing a helmet, going with traffic and signaling. These habits can become almost muscle memory, so that not doing them feels like leaving the house without your belt or your pants on or something,” he noted.

Barton offers a few important winter safety tips for bikers to make habitual:

• Wear A Helmet: Better to mess up your hair than your brain. “To be effective, a helmet must fit properly, and if you crash, replace the helmet,” said Barton. While helmets are the single most important safety feature riders can adopt, attitudes about wearing them seem to change as bikers enter puberty. “I’ve worked at four universities; college-aged students don't wear helmets. The trend seems to be that once children reach adolescence they stop wearing them,” Barton noted. Research shows that trend is driven by discomfort, the perception that helmets are not “cool,” and user feedback that helmets mess up your hair – all of which are excuses that seem pretty lame balanced against benefits such as reducing the threat of head trauma, brain damage and death.

• Make yourself visible to motorists. Incorporate flashing lights, headlights and reflectors into your bike gear and clothing. Small children, particularly, are difficult to see. But bikers of all ages benefit from making their presence known to drivers. “That goes for any time of year,” said Barton, “but especially at night, and in the winter months when we have a lot more darkness.”

• Avoid traffic, especially during doing dark hours. "Structure your route to limit your exposure to heavy traffic," Barton advised. “There are specific levels of traffic in which your injury risk drastically increases. Consistently, research shows that traffic volume is associated with injury risk for all ages of bikers and walkers.”

• Be aware of your surroundings. Pull off your iPod. Don’t talk on the phone. Don’t text. “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do while you’re driving a car,” said Barton. Auditory cues can be as important to safety as visuals.

• Bike like a driver – a driver surrounded by rude drivers. “Bikes are classified as slow moving vehicles. You have the same obligations as a driver to go with the flow of traffic, signal your turns and do all the things you would do in a car,” Barton said. “You sometimes do have the right of way, but a motorist is not always going to give it to you. Bike defensively. Know what’s going on around you. Be aware of safety rules.” Bikers, like drivers, also should deploy snow tires for winter driving.

• Be careful when you cross the street, and be there when your kids do. “Under the age of seven, children just lack the cognitive skills necessary to deal with all the information their taking in to determine when it’s safe to cross,” says Barton. “As parents, we need to take the time to give our children guided practice.

• Weatherize your gear and your awareness. Anybody who bikes in heavy rain or snow also needs good snow tires. Donning a helmet remains vital, and being seen and being able to see should be a determining factor in whether or not to take a ride. “Riders mainly need to be concerned with visibility issues on those days,” Barton said.

Barton stresses that for younger children, safe biking and walking, especially learning how to safely cross a street, depend less on a child’s age than on parents verbally guiding them through the process, as kids actively evaluate the dangers.

“The reality of it is, there is not just one age when kids are ready to bike, walk or cross the street on their own,” said Barton. “The parent needs to evaluate the child’s ability to navigate a street crossing; many parents do it intuitively. They have an understanding of when the children have those cognitive skills, and the ability to filter out distractions."

“Age itself is just a number," he noted. "It’s just an empty variable.”
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s land-grant institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year. The University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation classification for high research activity. The student population of 12,302 includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars, who select from more than 130 degree options in the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Art and Architecture; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Natural Resources; and Science. The university also is charged with the statewide mission for medical education through the WWAMI program. The university combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities and focuses on helping students to succeed and become leaders. It is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For more information, visit

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit