What is the difference between coaster brakes and handbrakes on a kids’ bike?
Brakes are probably the most important safety feature on your child’s bicycle. Therefore, it’s the sort of thing that you, as a parent, should be primarily concerned with when shopping for your kid’s first bike.
In this guide, we’ll be helping you decide which is best by going over the similarities and differences between coaster brakes and hand brakes.
Stick around to the end to find out which one we think is best (and what might be legally required)!
Coaster Brakes on Kids’ Bikes
Coasters are a type of braking system found on smaller children’s bicycles. Quite simply, they are operated by pedaling backward to slow the momentum of the bicycle down until it stops (they may also be marketed as foot brakes or back-pedal brakes). They operate on the rear wheel only.
The advantage of coasters is that they’re sometimes easier for kids to master than traditional brake systems. However, it is a different system from regular bicycles so will take some getting used to at first.
The downside of coasters is that if you don’t apply enough pressure, the bike can still move forward. It’s also possible to accidentally engage the brakes while riding, causing skids and even accidents.
Coasters are often very easy to spot because they have a brake arm attached to the chainstay of the bike. This means you can tell straight away if a kid’s bike uses coaster brakes.
You will find most kids’ bike models from 12″ to 16″ bikes come with coaster brakes as standard.
Hand Brakes on Kids’ Bikes
A hand brake is essentially a lever attached to the front wheel of the bike (or front and back wheel if fitted with two hand brakes).
To slow down, you simply squeeze the lever(s), then a cable attached to the braking mechanism on your wheel rim is activated. The brake pads can slow you down if pressed lightly, or take you to a complete stop if pressed firmly.
This is the system that all adult bicycles use, so it’s something that your child should eventually get used to if they want to ride bigger bikes as they grow up.
There are several advantages to having a hand brake. For starters, it’s easy to use. You just grab the lever and pull it towards yourself. No pedaling is required; however, some argue that smaller kids don’t have the grip, reach, or coordination to use a hand brake.
Another benefit of hand brakes is that they’re adjustable. You can adjust the amount of tension in the cables so that the bike will stop faster or slower depending on the situation.
However, hand brakes also come with some disadvantages. Because the lever is directly connected to the wheel, it could slip off the rim if you let go of it too quickly.
Which Is Better: Coaster Brakes Or Hand Brakes?
If you want to buy your child their first bike, then you may wonder whether to get a coaster brake or a hand brake. In this section, we’ll be comparing the pros and cons of both types of brakes.
Pros And Cons Of Coasters Vs Hand Brakes
Advantages Of Coaster Brakes
- Easy To Use – A big advantage of coasters is how simple they are to use. Instead of having to pedal while pulling back on the handles, all you do is push back on the handlebars.
- Helps Kids To Learn How To Pedal – Pedaling a bicycle isn’t the most intuitive thing for a child to learn at first. Therefore, by connecting the braking system to pedaling, your child will get used to the feel of pedaling the bike forwards or backward much more easily; pedal forwards to go, backward to stop.
Disadvantage Of Coaster Brakes
- Accidental Activation – One disadvantage of coasters is that you can accidentally activate them while riding. An accidental backpedal can lead to skidding and accidents.
- Inefficiency – The other big downside to coaster brakes is that they are very inefficient compared to hand brakes. More effort is required by your child to bring the bike to a complete stop when their bike has coaster brakes.
- Unsuitable on Rough Terrain – Coaster brakes are simply unsuitable on rough terrain. When going over bumps and avoiding hazards you want the ability to take your feet off the pedals and to backpedal when needed; you don’t want coasters on your mountain bike or learning to BMX.
- Uneconomical to Service – If your coaster brake is wearing out, you have little choice but to replace the whole brake unit.
- Pedal Start Position – When kids learn to ride a bike, they are often taught to place the pedals in a ‘starting position’ before they get going. This starting position is much more difficult to find if you can’t pedal backward without the bike moving.
- Weight – Coaster brakes can add considerably more weight to your child’s bike than a hand brake.
Advantage Of Hand Brakes
- Easier To Master – While there are many benefits to using a hand brake, one of its biggest advantages is that it’s easier to master than a coaster brake. Your child won’t need as much practice to become proficient at using a hand brake.
- Adjustable Tension – As mentioned earlier, hand brakes allow you to adjust the tension of the cables. This lets you completely control the speed at which the bike stops.
- Easier to Regain Balance – Because you can easily spin the pedals forwards and backward, it’s easier to remount the bike and regain your balance as the pedals can be moved to exactly where you need them.
- Safety Features – Hand brakes come with safety features such as automatic release mechanisms. These prevent children from being able to operate the brakes unless they know how to properly put them into action.
- Replacement Brake Pads – If your brake pads are starting to were then, this part of the child’s bike is easy to replace, whereas, on a coaster bike, failing brakes mean you need to replace the whole braking system.
Disadvantages Of Hand Brakes
- More Coordination is Needed – Small hands may not have the reach and gripping power needed for a hand brake.
- Potential to Flip – If hard pressure is applied to only the front wheel, there is a potential for your child to flip over the handlebars.
- Slippery Cables – Another drawback of hand brakes is that the cables tend to be slippery. This makes it hard to grip onto the handlebars and pull back on the levers. However, if you invest in some grippy gloves for your child, you can avoid this issue.
- Difficulty Learning How To Pedal – Just like coaster brakes, learning to pedal a bike takes time. However, since hand brakes require less effort to use, it may take longer for your child to learn this skill.
Coaster Brakes vs Hand Brakes? What does the law say?
It is not uncommon to find a child’s bike fitted with both a rear coaster brake and a front hand brake. A front hand brake alone can cause dangers in flipping on the handlebars so it’s recommended (and often legislated) that you also have a rear-wheel brake on a child’s bicycle.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission states that sidewalk bikes manufactured in the US over 22″ seat height at the lowest setting, but under 25″ must have a foot brake fitted. Bikes under 22″ do not need a brake as long as it does not have a freewheeling system.
This only applies to “sidewalk bikes” – bikes made for rough terrains such as BMX and Mountain Bikes do not need to meet this requirement. It’s also important to note that this rule was made in the 1970s and has not been updated; hand brake technology has significantly improved since the 70s!
European Union standards require a bicycle to be manufactured with two independent braking systems, both front and rear brakes but does not specify if they have to be hand or foot brakes, leaving this to legislation, custom, or preference of individual countries.
Australian safety standards also require a child’s bike to have two independent braking systems and one must be a back pedal brake.
Can I change a coaster brake to a hand brake?
Yes, it’s possible to make a modification to your child’s bike to remove the coaster brake from the rear wheel and make it a freewheel hub. It’s a job we recommend you approach your local bike store for help to ensure the switch is made safely.
Kids’ Bikes With Freewheel Option
For some brands, you can separately purchase the freewheel hub to make the conversion.
- For a beginner, try the Prevelo Alpha Zero 12″
- We love Park Cycles 14″ Pedal Bike
- A great choice to add a freewheel is Pello Romper 14″
NB – In the US your bike will come fitted with the coaster brake, the freewheel kit must be bought separately and installed.
So Coaster Brake or Hand Brake for Your Child’s Bike?
Ultimately, it’s safe to say that hand brakes are much safer and more effective for your child’s bike than coaster brakes.
While it might be easier for a child to get used to braking with a coaster system at first, this just puts them at a disadvantage as soon as they move onto bigger bikes with hand brake systems.
Not to mention, the fact that hand brakes are generally safer to use than coaster brakes as long as your kid knows how to use them properly. Training and proper instructions from the outset are essential.
Look out for hand brakes specifically made for youth bikes. They are easier to reach and operate than those found on adult bikes.
If your child is slow in developing coordination skills or has any sort of disability that may make the use of hand brakes difficult or impossible, of course, stick to coaster brakes until they are ready to transition.
At the end of the day, it’s not easy to teach a child to learn how to ride a bike but once they get the hang of it, it’s so rewarding to see them riding around enjoying life!
© Kids Bike Scoot Skate