Getting the kids to school - facing the school run versus letting them make their own way

May 2019

The Human Factor

Kinder als Radfahrer auf dem Schulweg
Auch als Radfahrer sind Kinder im Straßenverkehr in hohem Maße gefährdet.

The chaos on the roads around schools in the morning has been a cause of frayed tempers for many years, with elementary schools in particular a hive of activity. Some surveys have shown that, on overage, more than 30 percent of all elementary school children are dropped off in the car right in front of the school building. In areas where the conditions are less favorable (no child-friendly infrastructure, long distance between home and school, lack of public transport), this figure can be even higher. The issue of the “school run” has become a source of concern all over the world: A study conducted by Allianz Australia in 2018 showed that two thirds of Australian parents spent up to eight hours a week ferrying their children by car, and similar figures have been reported in the UK. According to a survey of parental driving habits conducted on behalf of TescoCars in 2011, around a third of British parents invested up to 50 hours per month in driving their children to school and leisure activities.

There are an array of different reasons behind this trend. Societal changes such as a free choice of school and the longer journey this entails for the children, changes in employment habits, higher car ownership, and the permanent pressure to fit more into our daily schedules are all factors in this development. At the same time, parents are often worried that something might happen to their children. In a survey conducted by major German automobile club ADAC on safety on school routes, 80 percent of parents said they were scared of sending their children to elementary school on their own. These fears pertained to both social security (physical assault, attacks, bullying) and the safety of children on the roads (busy roads, danger of a traffic accident, traffic situations on the way to school too complex). While these fears are understandable, they are happily becoming more and more distanced from reality, and a wide range of activities in recent years have contributed toward making routes to schools safer. Many parents completely ignore the fact that, by driving their own children to school, they themselves are increasing the amount of traffic on the roads and causing additional danger to those children who walk or cycle to school.

Why leaving the car at home can pay off

It goes without saying that the death or injury of a child is always a horriffic tragedy. All the same, the overprotectiveness of some “helicopter” parents – while undoubtedly well-meaning – has barely any positive consequences for their children. Instead of improving their safety, the willingness of parents to drive their children everywhere actually encourages the increasing immobility of their offspring, resulting in deficits that both affect how the children themselves behave in traffic and have a negative impact on their health and social skills. Due to a lack of experience, children who are driven everywhere display greater uncertainty in their behavior when they have to navigate through traffic environments by themselves. They lack practice, and as such their abilities are less well-developed and they struggle to overcome more complex traffic situations. This is especially pronounced in children who cycle, an area where they should start developing necessary skills as early as possible – preferably while still in kindergarten. Children who do not learn to cycle later, especially those who wait until after fourth grade, will find it harder to pick up, which will be reflected by deficits in the bicycle test and other areas. From a health perspective, the lack of exercise can also act as a trigger for additional problems: Obesity and the potential physical complications thereof, which range from diabetes to cognitive degeneration, eventually increase the risk of accidents, which in turn compounds parents' fears and makes them more protective.

Making one's own way to school is an important milestone on a child's path toward independent mobility. As well as giving them direct experience of road use, it also boosts their health, development and ability to learn, as outdoor exercise promotes concentration, alertness, mental wellbeing, receptiveness, and – in many cases – social contact and communication. On top of this, leaving the car at home is better for the environment.

Measures for promoting acceptance

There are several different approaches that can be taken to encourage parents to skip the school run and leave the car at home. Yet from letters and verbal reminders at parents' meetings to the implementation of repressive measures by the authorities, these attempts to change behavior are often met with only limited success. A combination of infrastructure and pedagogical measures is much more useful. This starts with ensuring that routes to schools are forgiving of mistakes and tailored to suit the abilities of children, which is key to garnering greater acceptance for independent mobility. At the same time, school mobility programs are important as a further means of boosting traffic awareness among children. The school, parents, public administration authorities, and police must all work together to come up with the best way of drawing up routes to schools, implementing road safety measures, etc. Last but not least, children must be encouraged to speak to their parents and convince them of the importance of mobile independence in everyday life – after all, this is often exactly what the children themselves want.

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