Our daughter is 10 and my husband is against letting her walk to school (I drive her) because there's a busy road she has to cross. It has a crosswalk with a stop light. He scours the Internet for evidence to back up his case – and just found a study saying that children under 14 don't have the mental capacity to cross the street alone. So it looks like she won't be walking for a while. Is it really that dangerous? – Lauren, Mississauga, Ont.
Why didn't the 10 year old cross the street? That study saying that children under 14 shouldn't cross the street solo doesn't actually say that, said one of the study's authors.
"It makes sense to break down street crossing into two different situations – when there's a crosswalk, pedestrian signal or a stop sign and when cars don't have to stop," said Jodie Plumert, a psychology professor with the University of Iowa. "For this, we were studying kids crossing busy virtual roads where the traffic doesn't actually stop – when traffic does have to stop, kids in the eight- to 10-year-old range can do that kind of crossing by themselves."
In the recently released University of Iowa study, researchers had six- to 14-year-old children cross a simulated road where cars didn't slow down. They had to watch the traffic for gaps between oncoming cars, guess when it was safe to start crossing, and make it across before they were (again, virtually) hit.
Six-year-olds were struck up to 8 per cent of the time. For 10-year-olds, it was 5 per cent, and for 12-year-olds, 2 per cent.
"We weren't seeing mature road-crossing behaviour until kids were 14," Plumert said.
Why? Plumert thinks it's a combination of brain development – and a lack of experience crossing busy roads.
"Kids younger than 14 have more trouble in timing their movement when they cross the road," she said. "Where an adult may start crossing before the lead car has passed them, kids under 14 will wait too long to start."
Walk this way?
While the study focused on children crossing busy streets without crosswalks, anxious parents might use it to keep their offspring from crossing streets on their own at all. That constant supervision means children are not actually learning how to cross safely on their own, said Lenore Skenazy, who made international news in 2009 when she wrote about letting her nine-year-old son take the New York City subway alone.
"We keep coming up with new reasons why children should never develop," Skenazy said. "Kids cross the street all the time, but we sit on the edge of our seats waiting for one study that contradicts everything we see and know to be true."
U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics reveal that in 2015, of the 1,132 children younger than 14 who were killed in car crashes in the United States, 233 were pedestrians. The rest were in cars.
"People don't seem to understand that nothing is without some risk – so we teach our kids to cross at the crosswalk and to look left, then right, then left again," Skenazy said. "When people are driving their kids to school, there's a risk they could get into a car crash – and that's actually the number one way for kids to die – but we accept that risk and we live with it."
While Plumert says it's important that parents are aware of these developmental limits, she doesn't think they mean children under 14 shouldn't ever be out alone.
"It would be good for parents to work with children to find places to cross the road where cars do stop, even if that means a slightly longer route to get somewhere like school or the park," she said. "And if there isn't, you might consider checking with city officials to see whether a crosswalk could be created."
For parents out with younger children, it's important to give them a chance to cross on their own when they're with you. That way they learn when it's safe and aren't just relying on your judgment.
"You get to a crossing and you let the child decide when they think it's safe, and then you can give them feedback," Plumert said. "If it's really risky, you can yank them back – that way the child is getting more experience, but is also under supervision."
Skenazy says you should let children walk to school alone at whatever age you walked to school alone.
"Why would you assume your child is stupider than you were?" she said. "People say, 'Well, my kid's too spacey to walk by himself.' I say, 'My sons were spacey, too, when I was walking everywhere with them because they didn't have to pay attention to a damned thing.'"
The Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators recommends that parents teach kids to:
- Always look both ways before crossing any street, including a marked crosswalk or an intersection with a walk signal.
- Keep looking as you cross.
- Never assume that a marked crosswalk or walk signal means you’re safe.
- Never use electronic devices when walking.
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