Part 1: Understanding how children develop and learn pedestrian safety skills

Lexington, Nebraska

Key pedestrian skills for children

What do children need to learn in order to become aware, traffic-smart pedestrians? Walking skills, such as choosing where to walk and when and how to cross a street, can become second nature over time. But children first need to develop the judgment to see what is different about every walking situation. In other words, children can't just transfer a particular procedure from one street crossing to the next without needing to use judgment each time. Children must be able to combine their mental and physical abilities, as well as their pedestrian knowledge, to walk safely.10 Parents and caregivers can help their children learn and develop these skills and behaviors by providing repeated instruction and modeling (Percer, 2009; Thomson et al., 1998; Sandels, 1975; Tolmie et al., 2006; Rothengatter, 1981). This section provides a brief overview of the basics for choosing where to walk and how to cross streets and how growing children gain abilities in carrying out these key skills.

Choosing where to walk

When setting foot outside, a pedestrian's first decision is to pick where to walk. Sidewalks and paths that separate walkers from motor vehicles are ideal. When not available, roads with wide shoulders where a pedestrian can walk facing oncoming traffic are next best. Roads with the least traffic and lowest speeds are generally safer for walking. Some areas will feel safer than others depending on the presence of other people on the street and whether there is evidence of criminal activity.

When walking with children, parents can explain why and how they selected their walking route. As their child gets older, parents can ask their children to suggest where to walk and ask them to explain why.

Finding a place to cross

Crossing the street incorporates many different types of pedestrian skills and knowledge and begins with identifying a safe place to cross (Tabibi & Pfeffer, 2003). In general, a safe crossing location is one that has a clear view of traffic from all angles, few cars, and crossing aides (like a traffic signal with a "walk" phase or a crossing guard). It's particularly helpful if this is a crossing that can be used each time the child walks to a particular destination.

To choose a safe place to cross along a new route, children must be able to evaluate the situation, including the ability to judge the presence of traffic, traffic speed and the availability of crossing aides (Percer, 2009). Children also must evaluate their own abilities as pedestrians to decide whether they are safe to cross. In other words, children need to decide if they feel comfortable crossing. Before being ready to take on these tasks alone, a parent needs to provide practice time and guidance.

Parents can help teach and reinforce these judgment skills by walking with their children and modeling safe pedestrian behavior, such as stopping at the curb and looking for traffic in all directions before crossing a street. Young children need to walk with a parent or caregiver to practice safe crossing behavior. Young children should also be shown the safest crossing site along any route that they will walk on a regular basis, such as the route to school. Parents and caregivers can help their older children choose the safest crossing location to use along a route and instruct them to always cross at that site.

Crossing the street

After children are able to judge a crossing site and decide it is safe to cross, they must then be able to focus their attention on crossing the street safely (Percer, 2009; Tabibi & Pfeffer, 2003). Two skills necessary for crossing the street safely are attention-switching and concentration.

Attention-switching is the ability to select the most important parts of a situation, such as a flashing crosswalk and an oncoming car, while ignoring distractions. For example, a child must be able to shift attention from friends playing across the street to oncoming traffic in order to pay attention to motor vehicles and assess the safety of the situation. Attention-switching is an important skill for children to have in order to recognize traffic when crossing and selecting safe crossing locations and times (Thomson, 2006; Dunbar, Hill, & Lewis, 2001; Demetre et al., 1993).

Concentration is also important because a child must be able to continue watching for traffic while crossing the street. A loss in concentration while crossing could mean a child does not see oncoming traffic or a turning car. Attention-switching and concentration are cognitive skills that children are developing and improving throughout childhood, so they often need extra help focusing on the important information in a crossing or pedestrian situation.

Consistently applying skills to new crossing locations

Once children are able to identify safe crossing sites and maintain focus while crossing, they then must be able to use their skills consistently to cross safely at different locations. Children may not always make safe decisions, even if they have learned pedestrian safety rules and skills (Demetre et al., 1993). More specifically, children may learn they need to stop, wait, listen and look while crossing at a curb, but they have a hard time repeating the same process if crossing elsewhere. Consistent, safe crossings require children to judge and pick a safe crossing site, choose an appropriate gap in traffic, use coordination skills and maintain concentration while crossing. Children need help from parents and caregivers to repeat the process successfully many times before they can complete it safely by themselves (Thomson et al., 1998; Sandels, 1975; Ampofo-Boateng & Thomson, 1991; Briem & Bengtsson, 2000).

Putting it all together

Deciding where to walk and picking the right time and place to cross streets are all skills that help prepare children for a lifetime of safe walking. The ultimate goal of a parent's time spent discussing and modeling safe walking with children and giving them opportunities to practice is to help children become safe, confident and independent pedestrians. They will be able to recognize and pick the best places to walk and cross and behave as safely as possible near traffic (Thomson, 2006; Ampofo-Boaten & Thomson, 1991; Van der Molen, 1981). These children may also grow up to become better drivers because they understand how to share the road with people on foot. The following sections provide more detail of the abilities of children at different ages.