What a 12-Year-Old Can Teach us About the Importance of Bike Lights

WABA will be hitting the streets tonight to begin our “Got Lights?” program for 2012, giving away 1,000 free sets of front and rear lights (provided by DDOT). The program is designed to target bicyclists riding after dark without lights. This post is a personal story from Gina Arlotto, who handles WABA’s Planning and Organizational Development, about teaching her kids about bike safety and the importance of having lights (and other safety equipment) on bikes.

WABA's branded bike lights for the Got Lights? giveaway

One Parent’s Perspective

It will come as no surprise to you to learn that kids really don’t like being told what to do. And they dislike it even more when they hit adolescence. Trust me, having to repeat the same lessons (pick your battles!) a million times gets old from a parent’s perspective, too.

Happily, teaching and practicing safe bicycling habits is one of those battles that we pick. It’s how I combat the anxiety I feel about them riding to school alone every day. I know they have the skills to control what they can–by following the rules of the road, by signaling, by stopping at stop signs and red lights–and the proper safety equipment. And I hope they can handle what they can’t control, especially the drivers commuting through our neighborhood without regard for bicyclists.  My kids know that following the rules of the road and having the proper bike safety equipment is not only the law, it’s also the safest way to ride.

My son (15) has taken many of my lessons to heart, but he takes the Metro to school (and as a teenage boy, will be a safety work-in-progress for some time regardless). I usually ride with my daughter (9) to school before I head into work, so I am able to observe her bike behavior closely.

A Bike Safety Prodigy

But for my 12-year-old daughter MaryGrace, it is imperative that she follow our safe cycling rules as she rides the 10 blocks to Stuart Hobson Middle School alongside car commuters. If you’re at all familiar with middle schoolers, you know they especially don’t like being told what to do, and my daughter is no exception. For a long time, I couldn’t be sure if all our lessons on bike safety were sinking in.

Thankfully, I periodically get reports from neighbors complimenting her for stopping at red lights and riding safely around the neighborhood. And if I needed any more reassurance, I only have to think of her response when I praised her on a long ride about how well she was doing. “Mom, I’m a bike safety prodigy,” she said with all the attitude of a typical 7th grade girl. Nevertheless, I could tell she was proud of herself.

Bike lights as critical bike safety equipment is a common theme in our house. We installed lights on the kids’ bikes before they rode them for the first time, so the conversation mostly consists of reminding the kids to turn the lights on, even during the daylight hours. When we’re out and about on Capitol Hill we see a lot of bicyclists riding around without lights, and my kids are often the first to point them out.  “Wow. That’s not safe,” they say, “You can’t even see them!”

Needless to say, I was thrilled when, a few weeks ago, I came home to find MaryGrace out on the sidewalk installing a set of lights on her friend’s new bike. When MaryGrace saw the bike, she said the first thing she told her friend was that she needed a set of lights.  After school let out they rode to our house and, after rummaging around in my husband’s basement work bench, fortunately located a spare set.  Not content to just give the lights to her friend to mount on the bike later, MaryGrace had grabbed a screwdriver and they worked together to get everything attached for the now-dark ride home. A “bike safety prodigy” indeed!

Visibility is Your First Priority

All of this is to say that if a slightly stubborn (but always adorable) 12-year-old middle school girl can recognize the importance of a set of bike lights, then you probably should too. And to any other parents out there, sometimes you really do have to repeat an important lesson a million times before it sticks. If you’re very lucky, you’ll be there when it does.

WABA’s “Got Lights?” project begins today and will continue in various locations throughout the District until we’ve given away all 1000 sets.  We are committed to giving each and every light set to cyclists who are riding without lights when we find them. If you already have lights on your bike, please consider helping us put these lights on the bikes that need them. Call 202-518-0524 or email advocacy@waba.org to help out!