Key Messages For Children

This section includes four main education topics that relate to Safe Routes to School (SRTS) for children:

Strategies for educating children around these key messages are provided in the next section.

Practicing safe riding skills at Manor School in Fairfax, CA.

Preparing to practice pedestrian safety skills in Santa Ana, CA.

Children practice crossing in a simulated setting at College Gardens Elementary School, Rockville, MD.

Santa Barbara, CA,.

Practicing crossing the street in Greensboro, NC.

Pedestrian safety skills

When pedestrians between the ages of five and nine are injured, it is most often when cars have hit them as they cross the street mid-block, particularly from between parked cars (Transportation Research Board, 2004). Running across intersections and getting off of school buses are also common times for children to be hit by cars. In general, children are not ready to cross a street alone until age ten (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). However, children vary in their developmental readiness to make decisions about where and when to walk and cross a street. Parents are often the best judges of when their child is ready to walk without an adult. When they are ready for this level of independence, children need to know how to choose where to walk as well as when, where and how to cross a street. These skills also require an understanding of how to interact with drivers.

Children need to know the following points:

  1. Ask a parent before walking anywhere without them.
  2. Use sidewalks or paths. If there are no sidewalks or paths, walk as far from the motor vehicles as possible on the side of the street facing traffic.
  3. Watch for motor vehicles turning or pulling out of driveways.

Children who are old enough and have parent permission to cross the street need to know the following additional points:

  1. Choose route with the fewest streets to cross. Avoid crossing busy or high-speed streets.
  2. Be more visible to motor vehicles by wearing bright clothing in the daytime. When there is little or no light, such as at sunrise or sunset, wear retro-reflective gear or carry a flashlight.
  3. Always look for motor vehicles. Drivers are supposed to obey the rules and watch for pedestrians but they cannot be relied on to always do so.
  4. Do not cross behind or within ten feet of the front of a bus or other large vehicle because the driver can not see this area.
  5. Stop at the edges of driveways and curbs or edges of the street where no curb exists and look for motor vehicles before proceeding.
  6. Watch for parked motor vehicles that may be getting ready to back up or pull forward.
  7. Before crossing, always look for motor vehicles even after a crossing guard, parent or other adult says it is okay to cross.
  8. Walk, don't run across the street.
  9. If crossing the street at mid block:
    1. Stop at the curb and look left, right and left again for traffic.
    2. Wait until no traffic is coming and begin crossing. Keep looking for traffic until you have finished crossing.
  10. If crossing between parked motor vehicles is necessary:
    1. Stop at the curb and check to see if the motor vehicles are running or if anyone is in the driver seat. If there is a driver, make eye contact and be sure you are seen before stepping in front or behind the motor vehicle.
    2. If safe, walk to the edge of the parked motor vehicles, and look left, right and left again before crossing. Keep looking for traffic until you have finished crossing.
  11. If crossing the street at an intersection:
    1. Obey traffic signs and signals.
    2. When the signal indicates it is time to cross, check for motor vehicles. Drivers may not obey the rules and turning drivers may not look for pedestrians.
    3. Look to see if motor vehicles are coming. Look left, right and left and then behind and in front for turning motor vehicles. Keep looking for traffic until you have finished crossing.

See Resources and Strategies for more information about pedestrian safety education.

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Bicycle safety training at Henry Elementary School in Tucson, AZ.

A law enforcement officer teaches bicycle safety in Tucson, AZ.

Bicyclist safety skills

Riding a bicycle is a major step towards independence and mobility for children and, like walking, is a skill that can be used throughout a lifetime. Supervised practice time on the bicycle is the most important way for children to gain riding and safety skills. It can also instill confidence and create better riders as well as better future drivers who are more aware of cyclists on the street.

Before riding to school, children first need to have sufficient bicycle handling skills, including the ability to:

  • Ride in a straight line
  • Ride in a straight line while scanning the situation ahead, behind and to the side
  • Stop quickly using the bicycle's brakes without swerving, falling or colliding with anything
  • Swerve in a controlled manner to avoid a hazard or collision

When children have these skills, they should learn and be able to demonstrate the following safety behaviors before riding to school:

  1. Preparing for the ride
    • Dress appropriately. Wear brightly colored, close-fitting clothing. Tie your shoes and secure long laces and loose pant legs. Do not wear headphones.
    • Wear a properly fitted helmet. See the Resources section for information about bicycle helmet fit.
    • Ride a bicycle that fits. When seated on the bicycle, both feet should be firmly planted on the ground and hands should reach the handlebars.
    • Ride a bicycle that is in good condition. Tires should be firm, brakes should prevent tires from rotating when pushed, chain should not droop or be rusty and the seat and handlebars should be tight.
    • Do not carry anyone else on the bicycle. A bicycle with one seat is a bicycle for one person.
    • Do not carry anything in your hands. Use a backpack, basket or panniers to carry school supplies and books.
    • It is best to ride only in daylight. If riding when it is dark, use headlights, taillights and reflectors, and wear bright clothing with reflective material.
  2. During the ride
    • Choose the route with the fewest streets to cross. Avoid busy and high-speed streets.
    • Before entering the street, look for other vehicles to the left, right, in front and behind.
    • Keep paying attention to your surroundings. Watch for other vehicles and hazards, such as potholes and parked motor vehicles, along the route.
    • Watch for vehicles turning into or exiting at driveways.
    • Stop at all intersections and check for traffic before crossing. When possible, cross at locations where adult school crossing guards are present. It may be best to dismount and walk your bicycle across large or busy intersections.
    • Ride in a straight line with two hands on the handlebar unless signaling.
    • Follow all traffic laws, including:
      • If riding in the street, ride in the same direction as motor vehicles, on the right hand side of the street, about two or three feet from the edge.
      • Use hand signals when turning and stopping.
      • Obey traffic signs and signals.
    • Always check in front and behind for traffic before changing lanes, crossing intersections or turning.
    • If riding on a sidewalk or path, ride slowly and be prepared to stop quickly.

See Resources and Strategies for more information about bicycle safety education.

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Allegheny Elementary School, Pittsburgh, PA.

Personal safety

In addition to pedestrian and bicyclist skills, many schools teach children ways to avoid potential risks in their environment beyond traffic, like criminal activity and people that may want to harm them. Fear of abduction or assault discourages some parents from allowing their child to walk or bicycle to school. Although child abduction, particularly near a school, is very rare, SRTS programs need to address not only the real dangers from crime, but also parents' perceptions. Whether dangers are real or perceived both affect parents' decisions to allow their children to walk or bicycle to school. Some students and parents worry about bullying by other children while walking or bicycling to school. Schools address bullying as part of violence prevention programs which can be incorporated into the SRTS program.

Walking school buses can help address personal safety concerns by providing a way for children to walk in a group with adult supervision.

See Resources for related programs and materials.

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Morton Way Elementary School focuses on air quality as a reason to walk in Brampton, Ontario, Canada.

Health and environment benefits

Beyond safety, education for children may also address benefits to personal health and the environment provided by walking and bicycling. Health benefits often focus on the importance of physical activity. Children learn about how the cardiovascular and muscular systems function and how physical activity can strengthen these systems. Although most children engage in physical activity primarily because they think it is fun, highlighting the relationship between personal health and physical activity gives children another reason to be physically active.

Education may also include information about the impact of motor vehicle use on air quality and limited energy resources. Children learn that they can help keep the environment healthy by walking and bicycling instead of traveling in a motor vehicle.

See Resources for more information about health and environment topics and lesson plans.

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