Danger in the Streets

Our roads could be killing our kids.  That's the stark conclusion to be drawn from a study recently released by the National Safe Kids Campaign.  Nearly nine out of 10 intersections studied have hazards that put children at risk as they walk to and from school, according to the research.

While the actual infrastructure of our streets and roadways is a problem, the research also found that unsafe driver behavior contributed to the creating unsafe conditions for child pedestrians. Of the intersections with traffic signals that Safe Kids studied, 87.3 percent have at least one of four common environmental and behavioral hazards that put children at risk as they walk to and from school. The four hazards are drivers who fail to stop or stop and then turn illegally; crosswalks in poor condition or not present at all; posted speed limits during school hours of 35 mph or more; and curb ramps that are missing or outside the crosswalk.

For good or ill, children are walking less these days, and that has contributed to a significant decline in child pedestrian deaths and injuries.  But pedestrian injury remains the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among children of ages five to 14. Each year, more than 600 children 14 and under die from injuries they received while walking on or near streets and roadways, and 44,000 children 14 and under suffer motor vehicle-related pedestrian injuries.

The study, called "Kids at the Crossroads: A National Survey of Physical Environment and Motorist Behavior at Intersections in School Zones," examined conditions at intersections that are equipped with traffic signals that are near our nation's elementary and middle schools. A total of 102 intersections, 204 crossings and 3,640 vehicles were observed in 51 cities across 35 states.

The study revealed conditions that could lead to pedestrian casualties. Nearly half (47.5 percent) of the observed intersections had crosswalk markings in poor condition, with some markings missing or not present at all.  Even more troubling, 30 percent of observed drivers stopped within or past the boundaries of crosswalks, obstructing the pedestrian crossing.  Worst of all, almost 15 percent of observed drivers either passed straight through the crosswalk or stopped and then made an illegal turn.

"Teaching children pedestrian safety is a great start, but it's simply not enough," said Martin R. Eichelberger, M.D., president & CEO of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign and director of Emergency Trauma and Burn Services at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "We know that children under 10 are particularly vulnerable because kids can't fully comprehend hazardous conditions at intersections. That's why this program is working to curb unsafe driver behavior and improve infrastructure to help make walking to school as safe as possible."

For the fifth consecutive year, SAFE KIDS coalitions and chapters, concerned FedEx employees, transportation and law enforcement officials, and other safety advocates will heighten awareness in communities about hazards and environmental issues at intersections. These actions include assessing pedestrian conditions in residential areas, participating in school-based activities like International Walk to School Day and advocating for more funding for programs such as Safe Routes to School.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is the father of three school-age children.