Pyrrhic victories in road safety

It is well-known that motor vehicles tend to squeeze vulnerable road users out of their space. With three tonnes of speeding motor vehicle approaching and the driver oblivious to your presence, this should not be a surprise. The most vulnerable of all are children.

A sad turn about in active travel is the trend in Australia that children do not walk to school any more. The issue is rather, that we as parents do not let them walk to school. In the 1970s in Australia, most children walked or rode to school, and few were driven. Today the opposite is the case.

The UK author Peter Walker wrote in his book The Miracle Pill.

Childhood might now be safer, particularly on the roads, but when this is mainly achieved by shutting young people in their homes, this is something of a pyrrhic victory.

Walker, Peter. The Miracle Pill (p. 218). Simon & Schuster UK. Kindle Edition.

Feeling safe

There has been considerable public hand wringing in recent years about the perceived cosseting of children, with a lack of independence meaning many are ferried more or less everywhere in a parent’s car. Physical play is supervised and limited, without previous generations’ ability to roam, explore and experiment. These worries are based in fact. A useful indicator for independent childhood mobility is how children get to and from school, and there is no doubt the statistics show a decline in active travel.

Walker, Peter. The Miracle Pill (p. 216). Simon & Schuster UK. Kindle Edition.

Again, the villain of the piece is towns and cities dominated by motor traffic. Fear of road danger by parents is both obvious and understandable. Globally, road injuries are the leading cause of death among children and young people, killing more than AIDS, tuberculosis and diseases like dysentery, combined.22 In the UK, 70 per cent of parents who drive their primary-age children to school cite danger from cars as the main reason, even as their own transport choice adds to the problem.

Walker, Peter. The Miracle Pill (p. 216). Simon & Schuster UK. Kindle Edition.

One reason, of course, is that travel decisions are based on perceived danger, and not statistics. But there is another theory. In 1990, Mayer Hillman, a radical architect-turned-campaigner for liveable cities, published a study into childhood independence and mobility, the message of which still resonates today. It was called One False Move,

Walker, Peter. The Miracle Pill (p. 217). Simon & Schuster UK. Kindle Edition.

Missing the message

The point of the advertising campaign is to warn drivers that they should be careful when they see children as primary school children have not yet developed the cognitive ability to cross the road safely. The wording was somehow poor as it put the onus on the children who can do nothing about the roads which have been built in a way that they cannot navigate safely. The parents react predictably to the threat and simply stop their kids from walking to school. 😦

The think tank Hillman worked with, the Policy Studies Institute, had carried out a series of surveys in 1971 in five areas of England about children’s independence and mobility. He decided to replicate these, and the findings were striking. For example, in 1971, more than 80 per cent of eight-year-olds were allowed to go to school unaccompanied. Less than twenty years later this had fallen to about 10 per cent. The proportion of all children allowed to ride their bike on the road fell from nearly 70 per cent to 25 per cent. The same picture emerged in virtually every aspect of the children’s active lives.

Hillman quoted the writer Roald Dahl recounting his joy as a six-year-old in 1922 racing his sister on his tricycle on the near-deserted roads where he grew up in Wales. The further back you went, Hillman noted, the greater the likelihood of an adult recalling the ‘good old days’ of such an independent, mobile childhood. Modern children, he argued, were not any safer; they were just more confined. ‘The “good old days” of reminiscence and the “good new days” depicted by the accident statistics are reconciled by the loss of children’s freedom,’ Hillman said. ‘The streets have not become safer, they have become, as the government’s poster proclaims, extremely dangerous. It is the response to this danger, by both children and their parents, that has contained the road accident death rate.’

Walker, Peter. The Miracle Pill (pp. 217-218). Simon & Schuster UK. Kindle Edition.

Warning: slow down people are walking on the road
Warning: slow down people are walking on the road

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