Towards a better understanding of children's bicycling injuries

July 16, 2004

Bicycle crashes are one of the most common causes of severe injuries in children, with about 500,000 children treated for bicycle-related injuries in emergency rooms each year. Many of these injuries involve motor vehicles, with one-third of all bicycle-related brain injuries and 90 percent of all bicycle-related deaths in children resulting from crashes between bicyclists and motor vehicles.

Children between 5 and 15 are most likely to be involved in bicycle crashes and have the highest rate of bicycle-related injuries. Despite growing national concern about bicycling safety, the underlying causes of bicycle crashes are poorly understood because, until now, it's been difficult to study bicycling behavior without risking injury to research participants. However, advances in virtual reality now provide a unique way of studying this issue. Using virtual environments, we can safely present children with the same kinds of bicycling challenges they confront in the "real" world.

In this study, we pioneered the use of an immersive, interactive bicycling simulator to safely and systematically study children's ability to determine when it was safe to bicycle across busy roads.

We had children ages 10 to 12 and adults "ride" a stationary bicycle through a virtual environment consisting of a straight, residential street with six intersections. At each intersection, participants faced continuous traffic from the left with gaps between the cars varying from 1.5 to 4 seconds. We instructed the participants to stop at each intersection and cross when it felt O.K.

We found that the children and adults chose almost exactly the same size gaps in traffic in which to cross. But when they actually crossed the street, the children left far less time between themselves and the oncoming car than adults. By the time children cleared the lane of the approaching car, only 1.1 seconds remained before the car passed. In contrast, 2 seconds remained when adults cleared the lane.

The finding that 10- and 12-year-olds left little margin for error when crossing traffic-filled roads suggests that mistakes in judging traffic gaps may be an important risk factor in car/bicycle collisions. In other words, without adequate time to recover from errors such as a foot slipping off the pedal, children put themselves at significant risk of collision with an oncoming car. This finding provides valuable information for designing new approaches to preventing car/bicycle collisions.

Additionally, our results suggest that immersive virtual environments are a promising tool for addressing difficult-to-study problems such as children's road-crossing behavior.
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 75, Issue 4, Children's Perception of Gap Affordances: Bicycling across Traffic-Filled Intersections in an Immersive Virtual Environment by J. M. Plumert, J. K. Kearney, and J.F. Cremer, University of Iowa. Copyright 2004 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

*Please contact Karen Melnyk at SRCD (see above) for author availability and contact information.

Society for Research in Child Development

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