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Walking the walk: How cities can make it safe for kids en route to school

Photo radar near schools? Red-light cameras, traffic circles and more parks? Cities can be designed in a way that children are less likely to be hit by a vehicle on the walk to and from school. In Ontario, traffic injuries are the leading cause of child death, although only half of that province's children walk to school. Recent studies, one published Monday in the Journal of Pediatrics and another published in March in Injury Prevention journal, paint a picture of what's happening on our urban roadways. We talked with Dr. Andrew Howard, a child health epidemiologist at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto involved in both studies, about how cities have to change. Here are five ways to make the morning commute safer for kids.

1. Design communities with kids in mind

Road features, such as one-way streets (which tend to encourage faster traffic) and traffic lights, have a greater impact on the risk of crashes involving children than the proportion of children who walked to school, the Pediatrics study, conducted in Toronto, concluded. As long as streets are pedestrian friendly, children who walk are not at increased risk of being hit by a car. But, when streets are designed primarily for rapid movement of automobiles, Howard said, "children don't own the roadway." Child-friendly communities are created at the urban-planning stage. Communities with larger child populations are more likely to have fewer collisions involving child pedestrians – possibly thanks to shorter walks to school, fewer road crossings and the "safety in numbers" effect associated with drivers' expectations of seeing numerous groups of children on their way to school, Howard said.

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2. Evaluate road features that indicate risk

The Pediatrics study found a link between child-pedestrian accidents and a greater concentration of traffic lights, school crossing guards and one-way streets. These features are not inherently dangerous, Howard said, but "they are markers of an intrinsically more dangerous traffic environment." Planners should evaluate specific road crossings for child safety and identify safe walking routes within school boundaries, he said.

3. Add traffic calming measures

Traffic circles, narrowed lanes and raised speed bumps reduce traffic volume and speed, resulting in fewer pedestrian injuries, according to the systematic review co-authored by Howard and published in Injury Prevention. Traffic calming measures such as these "consistently make for a safer built environment for children," Howard said.

4. Increase park and green spaces

There is a direct relationship between child traffic safety and the amount of green space in a given area, Dr. Howard said. The presence of playgrounds and recreation areas are consistently associated with more children walking and fewer child pedestrian injuries. The finding is applicable to school commutes since in some neighbourhoods, green spaces may allow children to get from home to school with minimal contact with traffic. "One of the things that green areas do is keep children off the street," he said. But he acknowledged that recreation spaces are more easily incorporated into plans for new communities as opposed to existing neighbourhoods.

5. Increase traffic safety enforcement

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A vehicle that strikes a pedestrian at 50 kilometres an hour has a more than 80 per cent chance of causing death, compared to a negligible chance when the speed is below 30 kilometres an hour, Howard said. Nevertheless, drivers tend to ignore signs cautioning them to reduce speed around schools. More effective measures include technologies such as photo radar and red light cameras used for traffic enforcement: "Those do work," he said.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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