Tales from the Safety Zone
Close to 1,000 child pedestrians ages 14 and under die each year as a result of being hit by motor vehicles on streets and in parking lots and driveways. Pedestrian injury is a leading cause of unintentional deaths in children ages 5 to 9. This is one reason we think children under age 10 aren't ready to deal with traffic. More boys are hit than girls. Their upbringing may make boys bolder about taking risks. Exposure may be an issue, too, since some parents are more likely to allow their sons to walk to school at an earlier age than their daughters.
Age 10 is a guideline, but that doesn't mean your 10-year-old is ready. Some kids are cautious by nature, but others are impulsive. They may be distracted easily by their friends and may forget to pay attention to what they're doing. You have to decide if and when your child is mature and responsible enough to face traffic alone, based on your observations of how well he's learned the necessary skills and how consistent he is in using them.
When you begin to let your child cross streets alone, start gradually and work up. Restrict him at first to quiet streets. Only after he's established a track record of practicing safe pedestrian skills should he be allowed to attempt busier intersections.
Long before your child reaches 10, you can be getting her ready for safe street-crossing. Begin as soon as she starts walking. It's much easier to teach her safe habits from the beginning than to have to break bad ones later.
The critical lesson for toddlers and preschoolers is never to play in the street or a driveway. Teach them always to stop at the curb or the grass edging the roadway because the street is for cars. Stress especially that they can't run into the street to retrieve a toy.
Teach your child good safety habits while holding her hand and walking with her in your neighborhood. Stop whenever you reach a corner and make a big show of looking left, right and left again before stepping off the curb.
Young children imitate the behavior of adults, so it's important to be a good role model. Once you become a parent, you have to resist the temptation to jaywalk, especially when carrying or walking with your child. Always take the extra minute to cross at the corner.
Also, explain that you never run across streets. It's too easy to trip and fall.
Rules of the Road
Continue to reinforce the safety messages once your child is in kindergarten. But now you can add some practical lessons. When you walk to an intersection, ask your child whether it is safe for the two of you to cross. This helps you figure out how well he is grasping the rules.
Be patient. Navigating traffic is a complicated process for which he is not yet ready. Praise him when he makes the right call. Remind him, though, that he's still never to cross the street without an adult.
As with all skills, practice makes perfect when it comes to safety. The more opportunities your child has to practice pedestrian skills, the better she'll be, and the lessons have a wonderful side benefit: Walking is great exercise for both you and your child. Plus you save on gas and help the environment every time you skip driving.
Here are fundamental rules to teach your kids:
- Walk on sidewalks or shoulders, not in the street.
- If there are no sidewalks and you've got to walk on the shoulder, walk as far off the road surface as possible, facing traffic.
- Cross at a crosswalk or corner, not mid-block, and especially not between parked cars.
- Look left, then right, then left again before crossing the street, and keep looking all ways until you reach the other side.
- Try to make eye contact with drivers before crossing in front of them so you're sure they see you.
- Obey traffic lights and “Walk/Don't Walk” signals, and stay within designated crosswalks.
- Keep a lookout for cars that are turning or backing up, especially around driveways and garages.
When you're nearing the time you think your child is ready to solo, have him take charge of your walks, making decisions and leading you across streets. This lets him be on his own but with you still nearby to intervene if he makes a mistake.
A Green Light Doesn't Mean “Go”
Learning to handle traffic signals is tricky. Tell your child that a green light means she should stop at the curb and look both ways to make sure the traffic has indeed stopped. The same goes when the “Walk” sign is flashing. You have to allow for the possibility that a driver will ignore the light. Just because one car stops doesn't mean one coming the other way will.
Make it a rule that your children can't clamp on the headphones when they go for a walk. Kids who listen to personal tape or CD players or radios with headphones while they walk can become distracted. They also can miss the sound of a car coming or a siren approaching.
It's also a good idea for a child to wait for a fresh green light or “Walk” sign so she'll have the maximum amount of time to cross. If she didn't actually see the signal change to green, she should wait for the next one.
If a child is in the middle of the street when the “Walk” sign switches to “Don't Walk,” the rule is to keep moving at a brisk pace (but not run) to the other side. She shouldn't stop in the middle of the street or turn back the way she came.
If your state allows right turns on red, teach your child that, at some intersections, drivers are allowed to turn even if they don't have a green light and may not always remember to yield to pedestrians.