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Road Rules: Middle schoolers learn bike safety in Langley

Here comes the littlest biker gang in town.

At 30 strong, the click-clack of changing gears and hum of rubber-on-pavement rises like a symphony tuning up. Then the laughter starts, and the illusion is gone.

It’s just a class of Langley Middle School students learning bicycle safety, and in six cases, to ride a bike.

“The kids, you see them smiling, they’re trying hard and they’re having fun,” said physical education teacher Rocco Gianni.

Thanks to a $23,000 grant, a bunch of volunteers and teachers Erik Jokinen and Gianni, kids at the middle school know how to behave at a four-way stop, proper hand signals and road safety.

The South Whidbey school is one of 15 in Washington that are piloting a Washington State Department of Transportation program, which purchased 30 hybrid road-mountain bikes and helmets.

The program’s goals are two-fold: teach bike riding safety and promote commuting alternatives to cars and buses. For the two physical education teachers, there’s another crease in the plan: get kids active again.

“We want to get them out of their moms’ SUVs and the school buses and onto their bikes, riding to school,” Gianni said.

“We’re looking at lifelong activities.”

And if the excitement of one recent sixth-grade class is any indication, biking is gaining ground in students’ list of interests. Once the students walked out to the disused bus barn, now a “bike barn,” behind the school and saw the bikes lined up, they made a bee-line for “their” bike. Thanks to volunteers, the frame sizes are coordinated by colored tape, as are the helmets.

Bike safety is a good lesson for Langley Police Chief Randy Heston to see. He stopped by Monday, helping students understand the rules for a four-way stop, one of the more complicated lessons for the sixth-graders, judging by the frequency of rolling stops, turns into the wrong lane and forgotten hand signals.

“Mr. Jokinen, if he’s up here and I’m going right, can we be neck and neck?” asked student Cody Newman.

“First come, first serve,” Jokinen told the rotating groups of eight or so students.

“We assume as adults that staying on the right side means something,” he said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that kids do not know that.”

A complete stop

Coming to a complete stop was one of the first rules Heston enforced. It was also a rule he watched be violated and ignored several times by cars and bicyclists at the nearby four-way stop at Camano Avenue and Sixth Street.

“They have to be careful,” Gianni said. “And they can’t go on there if we’re not confident they can be safe.”

Langley’s top lawman had another reason to visit. He is in the process of revising Langley’s city ordinances and recently recommended allowing a trial period for skateboarding in Langley city limits.

Safety is the council’s biggest concern and Heston’s too. Volunteers Blake and Lynn Willeford, Erin Simms, Julie Buthenica, Doug Allderdice, Shelly Ackerman and Gil Low assisted the three teachers, the other PE instructor was Kathy Gianni. Before the students can cruise Langley’s roads, they needed the basics of biking, like how to change gears.

“Do not change gears without paddling,” Jokinen said to the students, all in a row on their bikes.

Little slips the teachers’ preparations, which included explaining what a yield sign means. Students were instructed how to adjust their seat to appropriate height, with knees slightly bent with one foot on the pedal in a down position, and to check helmets using the two-finger rule (two fingers between their eyebrows and helmet, two fingers between their chin and strap).

Eighth grade students will be eligible to attend extension rides, including some trail biking, during the school year. A bike trailer, also purchased from the grant, allows the school to take students to biking destinations, like the Centennial Trail in Snohomish County and the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle.

Keep an eye out for the swarm of bikers around Langley in the coming weeks. Hopefully, they learned to look for drivers, too.

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