Real Risks: How to Keep Young Pedestrians Safe

Walk This Way

Editor's Note: Parents today are more aware than ever of the dangers that could befall their children. While the most sensational of those threats claim their attention, the greatest risks lie in the routine activities of daily life. Our "Real Risks" briefs will help you focus on the ways in which kids are most likely to come into harm and what you can do to keep them safe. Ask parents if they let their kids walk around the neighborhood, or to and from school, without an adult and you're likely to hear about fears of child abduction or assault. But that may be the least of what parents should be worried about.

Pedestrian injuries are the second leading cause of accidental deaths for U.S. children ages 5 to 14, according to Safe Kids Worldwide. (Drowning is the leading cause.) And while motor-vehicle-related pedestrian deaths among kids under age 13 have dropped considerably over the last 30 years - from 1,632 in 1975 to 289 in 2004 - thousands of kids still suffer serious pedestrian injuries each year (38,400 kids under 15 in 2003 alone), according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Compare that to the incidence of a classic kidnapping, which federal law enforcement officials say affects 200 to 300 children a year.

Kids under age 15 are most likely to suffer pedestrian injuries in areas with high traffic, more parked vehicles on the street, higher speed limits, undivided highways, fewer pedestrian walk buttons and signs, and fewer play areas, according to Safe Kids. Injuries are also more likely to occur on local, residential area roads "that are straight, paved and dry."

And there are other factors. Safe Kids cites national research findings that nine out of 10 crosswalks near an elementary or middle school had at least one of these hazards:

  • crosswalks that were either in bad condition or nonexistent;

  • drivers who failed to stop for pedestrians;

  • posted speed limits of 35 mph or more during school hours; or

  • curb ramps missing from the crosswalk.

Your Best Offense

With these risks afoot, a walker's best offense is a good defense:

1. Teach children how to cross a street safely - using walk signs, crosswalks and looking both ways before and during a crossing. Walk them to and from school a few times to become aware of potential risks and to teach children how to deal with them.

2. Teach kids to be cautious, since they're likely to still encounter oncoming traffic while crossing a street, even when they thought "the coast was clear."

3. Lobby for crossing guards at high-risk intersections and corners where children cross the street before and after school. School budget cuts often eliminate funding for crossing guards, and parents may need to argue fervently to keep them.

4. Keep an eye out for dangerous intersections or crossings. You can report incidents to your local police department and request that an officer monitor the area for a while to discourage speeding or reckless driving or to gauge whether a pedestrian traffic light is needed.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons also recommends lobbying for the following:

  • banning parking on one side of the street, to increase visibility;

  • adding speed bumps to particularly risky streets; and

  • banning cell phone use by drivers, since most pedestrian-motor vehicle accidents occur because the driver is distracted.