In this article, bicycle expert, Luke Elrath, provides an overview of the basic categories of children’s bicycles. Information covered includes the intended age range for each category and required safety features.
Children’s Bicycles - Intended Use and Required Safety Equipment
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Children 15 and younger accounted for 9 percent of all pedalcyclists killed and 20 percent of all those injured in traffic crashes in 2012.
To improve the safety of children on bicycles, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) defines design requirements for bicycles sold in the United States. There are certain requirements for children’s bicycles that do not apply to adult bicycles due to young riders’ milder riding terrain, experience level, and developmental differences. Some of these safety requirements vary based on the size of the bicycle, this is intended to account for the developing physical and cognitive abilities of growing children; Hand strength and coordination are two factors that guide the regulations for children’s bicycle equipment.
All of these differences and more can play a role in children’s bicycle-related litigation.
Categories of Children’s Bicycles
Kids’ bikes are categorized by wheel size, the most common being 12”, 16”, 20”, and 24” models. As kids grow in size as well as strength and coordination they are able to handle larger sized bicycles. In consideration of the intended use and rider abilities, the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s requirements for safety features vary somewhat across the range of bicycle sizes.
Balance Bikes aka Push Bikes: a bike without pedals, chain, or drive system. Generally equipped with 12” wheels, the purpose of these bikes is to teach children 18 months to 4 years how to balance and steer. Once balancing is mastered children often skip training wheels altogether. Classified by CPSC as ‘sidewalk bikes’, they are not required to be equipped with any braking system, nor required to be equipped with reflectors.
12” Bikes: Traditionally a child’s first bike, designed for kids 3-4 years, usually equipped with a foot-operated coaster brake and training wheels. Classified by CPSC as ‘sidewalk bikes’ they must have an enclosed chain drive
16” Bikes: Designed for children 4-6 years. Sometimes equipped with training wheels, though this is the most common size for children to ride after learning balance. Often equipped with a rear foot-operated coaster brake and a front hand operated caliper brake. Must have a chain guard that covers the top of the chain and 90⁰ of the part of the front sprocket that the chain contacts.
20” Bikes: Designed for children 6-8 years. Can be single speed BMX-style or mountain bike style. Usually the smallest size in which multi-speed bikes are offered. Can be equipped with foot-operated coaster brake, hand operated caliper brakes, or both. If it is a single speed bicycle the chain guard requirement listed in 16” bikes applies.
24” Bikes: The largest children’s bike size. For children 8-12. Most commonly multi-speed mountain bikes. For when kids have mastered balance, hand brakes, and shifting but do not yet fit on full-size bikes.
Children’s Bicycle Safety Features
- A coaster brake is a part of the rear wheel’s hub. It is operated by backpedaling. Often a feature on bicycles designed for the youngest riders; hand strength at this phase of development is often inadequate to reliably utilize hand brakes.
- Hand brakes are usually cable actuated. They have a caliper that grips the wheel rim connected via cable to a brake lever mounted on the handlebars. As children grow their hand strength becomes sufficient to generate the force required for this type of brake.
- Fully enclosed chain guards surround the entire chain. They are mandatory on sidewalk bicycles that are equipped with a drivetrain.
- On single speed bicycles equipped with 16”, 20” and 24” wheels there must be a chain guard that covers the top of the chain (from the rear cog to the front sprocket) plus 90⁰ of the part of the front sprocket that the chain contacts.
- The CPSC requirements for bicycle reflectors on adult bicycles apply to children’s bicycles as well. At a minimum a bicycle must be manufactured with a front white reflector, red rear reflector, yellow pedal reflectors and white wheel reflectors on each wheel. As noted above, balance bikes are excluded from this requirement.
Luke worked for several years as a Product Manager at Trek. In this role he was responsible for testing, benchmarking, and ensuring compliance with US and European safety standards across several product lines, including children’s bicycles. As the Product Manager at Advanced Sports International, Luke was integral in the bicycle design process, including frame geometry and component selection across a variety of brands, including Fuji and Breezer. He has travelled extensively to Asia to supervise and audit the production process and has also worked directly with component manufacturers to create custom parts.