The last thing you want while riding outdoors with a bike trailer is to be stopped by the police for using a bike trailer incorrectly. Unfortunately, there have been riders who have used bike trailers in the wrong place or in the wrong way that ended up with a pricey ticket.
But when and where is it okay to use a bike trailer?
I’ve been riding together with my two kids since they were infants in different places around the world, including New York, Japan, Seoul, New Jersey, and now North Carolina. I have not yet had any legal issues with bike trailers, but there are a few important things to know that could save you a headache.
Are bike trailers legal?
Bike trailers are legal in many countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, most European countries, and many more. Spain is one country that bike trailers are not legal. In the United States, there have been reports of riders being stopped by police for riding on the road with bike trailers. Riding at night without lights is also considered illegal in many places.
If you’re not sure if bike trailers are legal in your particular area, the best way to find out is to look into local cycling laws. If you are unable to find local laws specifically about bike trailers, then it is safe to assume it is okay. However, there are a few immediate indicators that will help you identify the legal implications of riding with a bike trailer.
How to find out if bike trailers are legal in your area
There are a few ways to find out if riding with a bike trailer is legal in a specific area.
1. If you can buy a bike trailer locally, it’s probably legal
Retail stores would not sell bike trailers unless they were perfectly legal in the local area. If you are intending to ride with a bike trailer in your local area, just head to any major retail store or sporting goods shop in the area to see if they sell bike trailers. The stores that typically sell bike trailers are REI, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Wal-Mart, and Target,
2. If you have seen cyclists with bike trailers in your area, it’s probably legal
Some areas tend to attract more cyclists and bike trailers. If you have seen a few bike trailers in your area, then you can assume it is legal. On the other hand, if you have never seen another bike trailer before, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not legal. Bike trailers are still catching on in many areas, so it’s possible that they’re just not as popular in your area.
3. Search online for local bike trailer laws
You can also do an online search for the local bike laws for your area. Many cities and states issue a legal document stating their local biking laws. If there is no mention of bike trailers, then you can assume it is legal.
Another thing to consider is whether or not children are required to wear helmets in your area. If helmets are enforced for children, then that will also play into the legality of bike trailers. Just be sure to check on the helmet requirements for children in the area. There’s an entire article I wrote on the helmet debate kids in bike trailers, which you can check out here.
Why are bike trailers illegal in some areas?
Bike trailers are seen as unsafe in some areas that do not have the infrastructure to accommodate bike trailers. Since bike trailers are not so visible to car drivers, some governments believe they are dangerous, especially when riding on the road.
There have been several reports that I’ve found in online discussions of people who have been stopped by the police and fined for riding with a bike trailer on the road shoulder. Some local governments ban the use of bike trailers on the road due to the fact that trailers are significantly wider than just the bike. Therefore, there is a change of cars not seeing the trailers (being low to the ground) and clipping the trailer unintentionally.
I generally discourage people from riding on the road shoulder if at all avoidable. I wrote some important things to consider regarding road riding with a trailer, which you can read here.
Is it legal to bike at night?
Bicycles have the same rights and responsibilities as cars in the United States and in many other countries. Therefore, cyclists must also follow the same regulations for visibility and safety at night. In many areas around the world, it is perfectly legal to ride at night if you have bright lights and reflective clothing.
There are no specific laws or rules regarding using bike trailers at night, so the best thing to do is to just follow general biking rules in your local area.
I wrote an in-depth article on how to be more visible when riding with a bike trailer for safety. Check that out here.
Are bike trailers dangerous?
Part of the concern that local governments have with bike trailers stems from a misconception that bike trailers are dangerous. But are they really any more dangerous than simply riding a bike?
Bike trailers offer a protective cage and harness seat belts that protect a child in the event of a crash. Bike trailers are the safest way to ride together with a child in comparison to alternative options, such as bike-mounted child seats.
Bike trailers are actually very safe
With any outdoor activity that involves semi-high speeds, there is an element of risk, but the health benefits and enjoyment factors more often outweigh the risks.
For example, an adult riding a bike next to a child or skiing with a child has the same risk factors as pulling a bike trailer. This is exactly the reason why bike trailers are arguably the safest way to ride with a child.
By following some basic safety tips and your own common sense, bike trailers can be much safer than alternative options, such as bike-mounted child seats.
On top of that, there is the added benefit of being very healthy for you and your child long-term, which helps reduce the risk factors involved with riding with a bike trailer.
There is an excellent article by Mr. Money Mustache that argues that bikes are the safest form of transport. I recommend reading it here.
What does the research say about bike trailer safety?
There is currently not enough research done on the safety of bike trailers, simply because there aren’t enough people using them to gather a relevant case study.
On top of that, we haven’t really given bike trailers a fair chance because our entire infrastructure is designed for cars first (especially here in the US). The evidence we do have is based on the safety of biking in general, which is a good indicator of how safe bike trailers are.
Perhaps the most helpful piece of data available is how fatal crashes usually occur, and then do everything we can to avoid those situations.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the United States, they state the following:
“There are two main types of crashes: the most common (falls), and the most serious (the ones with cars). Regardless of the reason for the crash, prevention is the name of the game. There are things you can do to decrease your risk of a crash. First, know some bicycle safety facts:
1. Regardless of the season, bicyclist deaths occurred most often between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.
2. Bicyclist deaths occur most often in urban areas (75%) compared to rural areas (25%) in 2017.
3. Bicyclist deaths were 8 times higher for males than females in 2017.
4. Alcohol was involved in 37% of all fatal bicyclist crashes in 2017.
Ride responsibly, and remember: All states require bicyclists on the roadway to follow the same rules and responsibilities as motorists.”
Comparing bike trailers to alternatives
When considering how safe something is, it is most helpful to compare it to other alternatives, or the opportunity cost.
In the case of bike trailers, the obvious comparison is with the popular bike-mounted child seat. I would like to go a little deeper and make a comparison to other outdoor activities that have similar risk factors, such as riding a bike in general, skiing, or driving with a child.
On top of all that, the most dangerous comparison is inactivity.
Are bike trailers safer than child seats?
At first glance, it would seem that the bike-mounted child seat is the easiest and safest way to ride with a child due to the fact that they are kept close to you and bike trailers seem cumbersome to pull behind your bike. However, bike trailers are far safer than child seats in the event of a crash.
In the event that your bike crashes or falls over, the crash will have a much lower impact (if any) on the child who is enclosed inside the protective bike trailer. Bike trailers either come with a cage-like protection or a canopy cover that separates them from any harm. I should mention that I have never crashed with the bike trailer or with a child seat, so it shouldn’t be too much of a concern for you if you follow basic safety precautions.
With child seats, on the other hand, if you crash or fall over, your child will almost definitely get hurt. I have personally been in situations where one of my kids was sitting in the child seat and then it toppled over while I was trying to get on. As always, they wear helmets and were fine.
Bike Trailers vs. Other Activities
The reason it’s important to make a comparison with other activities is because generally bike trailers receive an unfair amount of skepticism regarding their safety, where in fact, there are many common outdoor activities that pose similar risk factors.
Riding a bike in general, skiing, and driving are all very common activities that have elements of risk involved. Why are they not considered “dangerous”? Because they are enjoyable, efficient, or healthy and therefore any associated risks are not concerning. The same can be said about bike trailers. They are extremely healthy, efficient, and enjoyable, so the slight risk involved in an unlikely crash can be heavily outweighed by the benefits.
Bike Trailers vs. Inactivity
The most destructive and dangerous activity in modern human history is inactivity itself.
From that perspective, the health benefits and exercise that bike trailers offer heavily outweigh the risk of not doing anything at all. Of course, you can choose to do any sort of activity to counter the health risks of inactivity. But, bike trailers offer a unique set of health benefits that you and your child get to experience together.
On top of that, you are leading by example and showing your child how to live an active and healthy lifestyle.
Three reasons bike trailers are perceived as dangerous
There are 3 main reasons bike trailers sometimes receive such an unfair assessment.
1. We’re not familiar with bike trailers
Especially here in the United States, the norm is car transportation, regardless of how short the trip is. In other countries, such as Denmark, Japan, and some parts of America, it is very common to see people riding together with children.
2. We’re afraid of car incidents
This is probably the most valid concern with bike trailers. If you are riding near cars, there is always the risk of cars not seeing the bike trailer. However, you can help eliminate the risks by following a few basic safety precautions (outlined here) and avoiding riding around cars as much as possible.
3. We’re lazy
Often times the easiest way to dismiss something challenging but good for us is to say it’s dangerous or wouldn’t work. I think this sometimes happens unconsciously with parents who are toying with the idea of getting a bike trailer, but the safety factor becomes an excuse to not take the plunge. It’s the same excuse we make when considering biking to work.
My recommended bike trailer: Schwinn Joyrider
Check out the Ultimate Guide to Buying a Bike Trailer for more help with choosing a trailer. I also have compiled a list of the top bike trailers for every common situation, which you can check out here.