Practical programs teach young cyclists street sense

Ask most people what they know about Missoula, Mont., and you'll probably get a blank stare -- unless they are alumni of the University of Montana. But thanks to the innovative bicyclist Training Program, now part of the core curriculum of Missoula's public school system, youngsters there may be among the safest bicyclists in the country.

"We try to give children street knowledge," says Roger DiBrito, who heads the program. "Kids are on the street; legally they're required to ride in the streets in most places. But no one has taught them howm to ride in the streets, how traffic moves, why traffic moves the way it does, and things we have to do as bicyclists to be safe on the streets. We canm ride safely, it's just a matter of knowing what the motorist is going to do."

The 15 lessons combine classroom and hands-on training. They range from emergency braking and rock dodging to hazard identification and proper turning. Often, says Mr. DiBrito, the training means shooting down previously taught theories. Rock dodging, for instance.

"Many accidents happen when a child sees an object in his path and swerves three or four feet around it and ends up in hte lane of traffic," says Mr. DiBrito. "We teach them how to get around that object within an inch or two, just enough to clear the front tire. If the front tire makes it around, it is not going to throw you; if the back tire hits it, that's fine."

Just as drivers are taught to check the rear-view mirror, young cyclists learn to scan to the rear by looking over their shoulders without swerving. The trick: using the modern dance technique of isolation so one can turn one's shoulders without moving the rest of the body.

Students even spend time visiting intersections and logging traffic: What does the motorist do when he comes to the intersection? Does he look left and right? If you enter from the sidewalk is he looking for you there? Does he expect you to be there? Does he expect you to be on the wrong side of the road opposing traffic? No, he doesn't. He looks where his threat is coming from. If he's making a right hand turn his threat is from the left-hand side because cars are coming that way. . . .

In many ways, the course is like driver's education, with explanations of reaction time and stopping distances. Slide presentations also help students learn to judge what may happen in a given situation.

Students are getting a lot out of the program. In fact, the 90-page evaluation of the 700 fourth-graders who took the course last spring is so impressive that the program has now been adopted statewide in Montana, and programs based on the Missoula plan are being developed by the Mountain Bicyclist's Association in Denver and school systems in Dayton, Ohio; Sarasota, Fla.; and the province of Ontario, Canada.

"We like to think we've broken the ice and have moved away from the old bike programs that were all in the classroom. You colored some stop signs and yield signs and did some crossword puzzles," says Mr. DiBrito. "I taught those. I know."

Meanwhile, the League of American Wheelmen -- the largest bicycist association in the United States -- has its own safety education program called "Effective Bicycling." Developed by John Forrester, a past president of the organization, it is geared toward adults, although a similar program for children is being started. Mr. Forrester says the purpose of the program is to eliminate what he calls the "cyclist inferiority complex" by teaching "vehicular cycling."

For too long, he says, cyclists have been taugh that it is a cardinal sin to hold up cars in any way, and that the only way to ride safely is to avoid cars totally.Vehicular cycling sees the bicycle as another vehicle that needs to operate by the same rules of the road as any other vehicle. Not doing so is what is unsafe.

"You have to teach a few simple principles by which the traffic system operates, then they ca participate like anyone else on the road," Mr. Forrester says.

Paul Norris, one of the 44 certified "effective bicycling" teachers, has strong feelings about traditional bike safety programs which teach that bicyclists should stay away from cars, as well as the fairly recent move to establish bike paths.

"Bike lanes and bikes paths are terrible mistakes," he says. "They allow the bicyclist and the motorist to go on the road pretending they're on separate facilities and can ignore each other -- until right where it counts, at intersections. They then enter the intersections in the wrong relationships according to the rules of the road because they've been allowed to pretend the other is not there."

What can parents do to help their children bicycle safely? Learn to bicycle properly themselves, says Mr. Norris. Then, it's not difficult to teach children.

Mr. DiBrito concurs. "If you let your kids ride to school, ride with them a couple of times first. Talk to them about being predictable, to stay where the motorist can see them, not to jet off the sidewalk onto the street and back onto the sidewalk. Go with the traffic, run with the light, command the lane."

What if one can't find a bicycle safety course that teaches proper techniques? Mr. Norris recommends the two books by John Forrester. "Effective Cycling" (the textbook for the adult course) and "Intermediate Effective Cycling" (used for the juvenile course).

Those wanting more information about the Missoula program should write to the Montana Bicyclist Training Center,1150 Napton Way, Lolo, Mont. 59847.

"Effective Cycling" ($10 postpaid) and "Intermediate Level Effective Cycling" ($4 postpaid) can be ordered direct from Custom Cycle Fitments, 726 Madrone Avenue, Sunnyvale, Calif. 94086.

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