Globe and Mail

School zone: Watch out for children

Most parents overestimate the danger from deviants and underestimate the perils of speeding traffic

ANDRÉ PICARD
The Globe and Mail
Friday, October 29, 1999

Montreal -- Eva Portelance is a confident, independent six-year-old. She wants to make the 15-minute walk from her home to Saint-Jean-Baptiste primary school alone.

Her mother, Louise Davey, says it's out of the question. "I know it's not cool to walk to school with your parents. But I don't plan to let her walk alone until she's at least 11. There's just no way," she says, walking hand-in-hand with Eva.

Ms. Davey, a physicist and management consultant, is not the worrying type. But does not want her children out alone on the mean streets of the city -- not with the creeps out there.

So each morning Ms. Davey drops her daughter off at school and her three-year-old son, Léo, at daycare. Her spouse, Pascal Portelance, picks them up.

That ritual is the single most important action they can perform to protect their children from harm, not because they are scaring off molesters, but because they act as a buffer to traffic.

"Parents greatly overestimate stranger danger and grossly underestimate the danger that ordinary drivers pose to their children," says Dawn Walker, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Child Health.

Traffic accidents are, by far, the leading cause of death and injury among school-aged children. The statistics are staggering. Each year, almost 800 children from 5 to 18 are killed in motor-vehicle accidents and 60,000 more are injured. Pri mary-school students are at the greatest risk.

Janet Wyman, a botanist and mother of two, does not know the statistics, but she is passionate about the issue of traffic, particu larly speeding. "I'm the one run ning down the street, pounding on the car windows, telling them to slow down," she says with a laugh.

Her oldest son, Jean-Luc Wyman-Grimard, 6, also attends Saint-Jean-Baptiste school. It is less than a block from his home, but Ms. Wyman would never dream of letting him walk alone, even though the single street he needs to cross has both a light and a crossing guard.

"You can streetproof kids, but you can't car-proof them. At least not in Montreal -- people drive way too fast and way too recklessly," Ms. Wyman says.

In urban neighbourhoods such as Montreal's Plateau district, they start teaching children about traffic safety in daycare centres as soon as they can walk, and once they get to school the learning intensifies.

In preschool classes at Saint- Jean-Baptiste, they set up mock street crossings in the classroom and do drills. And the police map out "safe routes" to school that are provided to each child.

Ms. Wyman thinks that it's not enough.

She says as much effort should be put into enforcing the rules of the road as parking regulations (and Montreal is obsessive about park ing because tickets are a big reve nue generator), particularly in school zones. And she would like to see physical traffic-calming mea sures such as speed bumps.

But Ms. Davey is unconvinced that a police crackdown would make much of a difference over the long term and thinks that traffic- calming measures might simply transfer the problem elsewhere.

"The way people drive is out of control. There are no rules any more, and it's a society-wide prob lem. So what I teach the kids is that they have to fight for themselves," she says. "I think you will be safest if you know what you're up against."

Like most Montreal parents, she teaches her children that "green lights and stop signs don't mean anything," that you cross a street only after a car comes to a stop and you make eye contact with the driver.

And, until they are much older, Ms. Davey insists that an adult be with them.

Sonya Corkum, executive direc tor of Safe Kids Canada, says this is a wise approach. The principal rea son that so many younger children are struck down while walking is that they lack the ability, physically or developmentally, to make safe judgments about traffic, she says.

"Children under 9 may not be able to judge whether a situation is safe, or react appropriately to an emergency -- especially when they are nervous or scared," Ms. Corkum says.

"A parent may think, 'My child is smart. He can repeat the rules of the road and is responsible.' These things may be true, but develop mentally a child under 9 is not ready."

Ms. Walker agrees. She believes that too much of an onus has been placed on children -- the victims of traffic -- to react to the excesses of irresponsible drivers and not enough has been done to shield them.

She says the safety-education ap proach is limited (and obviously not that successful), so far more should be invested in traffic-calm ing and pedestrian-friendly mea sures.

For Ms. Wyman, who was hit by a car last year while crossing on a green light (she suffered only minor injuries), it boils down to drivers taking more responsibility for their actions. They must realize that speeding and racing through stop signs and lights carry a tremendous societal price.

"I feel I live in a caring commu nity, that others really care for my kids. But when they get behind the wheel, that gets forgotten -- people become maniacs, they become in sane," Ms. Wyman says.

"I wonder if drivers ever wonder, when they're driving 75 miles an hour past the school, how they would feel if they killed a kid. Is it really worth it to get where you're going a few seconds faster?"

ACCIDENT STATISTICS

The Canadian Institute of Child Health conducted a literature review to determine risk factors associated with schoolchildren and traffic. Here are some of the statistics it uncovered:

Speed is implicated in most accidents involving children. Speed is also the biggest determinant of the extent of injury. At 30 kilometres an hour, 5 per cent of children struck are killed; at 50 km/h, 45 per cent are killed; and at 70 km/h, it's 85 per cent.

When children are struck, one-quarter of vehicles are turning and three-quarters are going straight.

Instituting traffic-calming measures -- speed bumps, plantings, sidewalk widenings, etc. -- cuts injury rates by about 30 per cent.

Accidents involving children are four times more likely near convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.

Six per cent of injuries happen to children on the way to school and 30 per cent on the way home from school. Friday is the most dangerous day.

The fall months -- October, November and December -- are the most deadly for child pedestrians.

Two-thirds of children's injuries occur in clear, sunny conditions. Eighty per cent occur in daylight.

Child-accident rates are significantly higher in neighbourhoods with a lower socioeconomic status and high unemployment rates.

Children who live in apartments are 5.5 times more likely to be injured than those who live in single-family homes.

The presence of parks and bike paths in a neighbourhood significantly reduce the accident rate.

About one-third of children are injured getting in or out of a vehicle and one-fifth when a child comes out from behind a parked car. One-third of injuries occur when a child is crossing the street while disobeying a traffic signal, and 10 per cent when crossing properly.

Mid-block crossing is the single most likely reason for injury. Yet 70 per cent of accidents occur within 200 metres of an intersection.

About 12 per cent of rush-hour traffic in cities consists of parents in private cars escorting their children to school.

Estimates of driver responsibility for accidents involving children range from 20 to 50 per cent.

About half of primary-school children who are killed or injured are pedestrians and one-third passengers. In older children, the pattern is reversed. Almost one in five deaths in both age groups are cyclists.

Three-quarters of all child-pedestrian injury-prevention programs are educational. Yet training programs have only "modest" rates of improving behaviour.

Parents routinely have unrealistic expectations of their children's ability to negotiate traffic.

Copyright © 1999 Globe Information Services