Getting to School Safely
Author: Michael Vogel
Starting school is a special event for any child. It is important that first graders learn how to safely navigate traffic early on.
15 kilometers – that is how far eleven-year-old Jackson and his little sister have to walk to school through Kenya’s savannah every morning. On foot, at a rapid pace. The two have to make sure they have enough drinking water and repeatedly avoid dangerous animals. The 2013 documentary film “On the Way to School” by Frenchman Pascal Plisson describes their journey. By comparison, many children – even in Kenya – have much shorter routes to school and the risks are different: As the weakest road users, they are particularly exposed to the dangers of road traffic.
When children start school, the issue of school route safety becomes very important. Because of their height, they are easy to overlook and have difficulty getting an overview of traffic situations. Their short stature also means that they have to take more steps to cross a street. Scientific evidence shows that young children react more slowly to visual and auditory stimuli than adults. Their reaction times can be three times as long. Young children are also more easily distracted and, when they see a car, have difficulty judging whether or not the driver sees them.
Unfortunately, parents in many industrialized countries are increasingly drawing the wrong conclusions from these dangers: They take their children to school not just for the first few days after they start school, but for years, often by car. The VCS Traffic Club of Switzerland, for example, has found that when children attend elementary school, the average walk to school takes twelve minutes. Yet every tenth Swiss child is chauffeured to school, and up to a third of children in areas close to the city center and in high-income communities are chauffeured. Similar or even higher figures are known from other countries.
“Safety makes you strong!“
It is very important for children to learn how to get to school on their own. This strengthens independence and self-confidence, and is the only way they can practice the proper behavior in traffic. DEKRA has been supporting first graders for 20 years with its “Safety makes you strong!” campaign. The campaign runs in Germany through the 74 DEKRA branches, often in cooperation with local partners. In addition to distributing free caps for newly enrolled children, the campaign also includes educating children and parents on the issue of “getting to school safely”.
The caps are bright red and have reflective light strips all around. “People who are easy to see are generally safer on the road. High-visibility vests, for example, have signal colors and retroreflective elements for a reason,” says Guido Kutschera, Chairman of the Management Board of DEKRA Automobil GmbH and responsible within the group for the region Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. In addition to the red caps, he advises parents to also look for retroreflective, eye-catching elements on their children’s clothing, shoes, and schoolbags: “This makes children much easier to spot for other road users – especially at dusk or in the dark.”
The campaign has long since become a model for DEKRA companies in other countries. Last year, for example, it took place not only in Germany but also in Bulgaria, Chile, China, Finland, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. Since the campaign began in 2004, 3.35 million children’s caps have been distributed in Germany alone.
In many countries around the world, children starting school prefer to walk or take school buses and public transport to get to school every day. In Anglo-American countries in particular, crossing guards are part of the street scene, especially in front of elementary schools. Because of their often large warning signs with which they stop traffic, reminiscent of lollipops, they are also called “Lollipop Man” or “Lollipop Lady”, respectively. In countries such as Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, however, the crossing guards’ lollipops look really small, if they have any at all. In Japan, by the way, crossing guards are called “green aunts” because of the color of their uniforms.
Tips for parents on how to get to school safely
- It is important that parents practice walking to school with their children before they start school. If parents already know with which other children their child will be walking to school, it is best to practice in a group. But do not practice only on weekends or during vacation – when there is often less traffic.
- Practicing with reversed roles is also possible: The children take the parents to school – thereby showing that they know the dangers.
- Parents should choose a safe route to school for their children in advance: as little as possible on busy roads; where possible, use routes without traffic; and always cross at traffic lights or crosswalks.
- Driveways at garages, courtyards, or underground parking garages are also potentially dangerous places because vehicles can cross or back up across the sidewalk too quickly.
- When crossing the street without traffic lights or crosswalks, children must learn to independently find a suitable spot where the view is not obstructed by parked vehicles.
- First graders should not ride bicycles or scooters to school. Due to their age-related stage of development, they endanger themselves and others by doing so.
- Headphones and smartphones are off limits on the way to school.
- Parents should advise their children that even on sidewalks or paths away from roads, bicycles or scooters may be traveling at high speeds.
- At bus stops, children should not push or shove and stay three feet away from the curb.
- Before boarding a bus or train, children should let passengers get off first, and not push or shove when boarding. When getting off, look left and right (scooters/bikes!). Only cross the street when the bus (or train) has driven off, if possible at a crosswalk or traffic light.
- Parents who drive their child to or from school should not park directly in front of the school building, or at or across from bus stops. Otherwise, they create additional hazards for all children traveling there.