Greater Care Reduces Risk of Accidents

May 2019

The Human Factor

Children are a constant presence in road traffic. Pedestrian, cyclist, or passenger, occupant of public transport, user of roller blades, skateboards, or push scooters – there are many roles they can play that involve them in what happens on the roads. In addition to this, children can also be indirect road users. Unlike adults, they sometimes use parts of the road infrastructure for leisure activities: as somewhere to play, compete in sports, communicate, and meet up for group activities. All these different participation scenarios generate a huge variety of potential risks. In order to further reduce the number of children killed and injured in traffic accidents, we need to employ a diverse range of approaches.

Familie auf dem Schulweg

Children start using the roads almost as soon as their lives begin. They are socialized to the existence of traffic while they are still just babies, even if they are not consciously aware of it. To start with, children are generally accompanied by their parents when using roads, usually as passengers in cars, in their prams, or – later on – on their own scooters or training bikes. They don't become independent road users until they start elementary school. But as they become less dependent on the adults around them, the risk of them suffering a traffic accident increases.

The fact is, learning how to behave around traffic is something that comes with experience. And since practice makes perfect, it takes time to acquire and internalize all the knowledge and skills we need to survive. With the way our development works, we can't pick it all up at once – we have to learn to walk before we can run. Granted, some of us are naturally fast learners, and we can also speed up the learning process with intensive practice at an early age, but the order in which we go through each stage of our development is predetermined by our basic psychosocial patterns.

One of the key prerequisites for ensuring that our children are safe around traffic is making sure that they possess all the necessary skills. These include the ability to control their own awareness and attention, a sufficient knowledge and understanding of the rules, and motor and social skills. For many years, we believed that these skills were fully developed by the age of 14. That may be the case for simple traffic situations that are easy to interpret, but as situations become more complex, it becomes clear that even this age group has not yet fully trained the combination of individual skills required. They are not always quick enough to notice things, and there are still deficits in their peripheral vision. In order to assess what we can expect from children of different ages as road users, we need to take a closer look at how individual skills and abilities are developed over time.

Hearing

Generally speaking, children have good hearing even as babies. The only difference is that a baby's hearing is less sensitive, so that noises have to be more intense for them to discern them at first. Under simple conditions, they will even demonstrate good directional hearing (Where is the noise coming from?) and auditory recognition of sounds (What or who is making what noise?) by the age of five. Selective auditory attention (Which noise is important?) is trickier. This depends on the maturity of the individual child's brain, and rarely works reliably until children reach the mid-elementary-school age bracket.

When it comes to using the road, we usually need our hearing to assess the situation and keep ourselves safe. Distinguishing between different volumes and pitches and localizing and distinguishing between sounds are some of the most important functions of our auditory perception. However, regardless of how well their hearing works, children don't tend to use it on the road until they reach the age of eight. While they can often hear horns, bells, screeching tires and other traffic noises, they are usually more focused on other things, such as their friends or toys. This increases the risk of accidents. In terms of auditory perception, even eleven-year-olds still demonstrate less ability to localize vehicle engine noises than adults.

Vision

The basic functions of sight develop in the first year of a child's life. They can usually see the full human range of color and brightness by the time they are two or three months old. their ability to recognize objects starts with simple shapes while they are still babies, and continues to develop throughout childhood so that, by the time they reach adolescence – the period that stretches from late childhood and through puberty up to adulthood – they can recognize objects under complex conditions (e.g. from different perspectives and with different lighting).

There is some disagreement as to how long it takes for children to develop their full visual acuity and field of vision, with figures differing by several years depending on how the skills in question are measured. What seems certain is that visual acuity is, for the most part, developed in the first year of a child's life. The full field of vision may also be present from an early age, but it remains unavailable to the child because their cognitive functions – the mechanisms that affect their thought, comprehension, and knowledge – are not yet in full operation. Depth perception is well developed at just six months, and continues to mature until around the age of eleven. This affects the consistency of size – the ability to perceive objects as being of almost constant size despite differences in distance from the eye – and the ability to judge distances correctly. The latter of these skills seems to reach full development somewhere between the ages of six and nine. The abilities that take the longest to develop are the ability to judge speed and visual searching. These skills do not function reliably until the child reaches ten to twelve years of age, as they require more complex cognitive processes such as the ability to focus one's attention and to plan and execute a strategy to search for an object or person.

There are many different functions of a person's vision that are important when it comes to using the road. In addition to visual acuity at both close range and long distances, seeing in the dark or dusk, peripheral vision, and perception of color and movement are all essential. Visual perception of distance and speed represents a particular challenge, as this can only be achieved successfully in conjunction with cognitive skills. Children seem to compensate for deficits in this area in a number of ways, such as by being more careful when crossing roads. For example, they may wait for larger gaps in traffic before crossing in order to account for their slower information- processing and decision-making processes – what is known as a "slow start".

Identifying safe crossing points is also a problem. Until the age of nine, children primarily choose the points at which they cross the road based on the visibility of vehicles – irrespective of whether their own position means that their vision is blocked by other obstacles. What is equally dangerous is the fact that their visual searching when crossing a road (the act of actively looking for vehicles with their eyes) is often performed as more of an unthinking ritual, if at all. is can even apply in children up to 14 years old. Although many children will at some point possess all the skills they need, they will often fail to use them either properly or at all due to impulsiveness or being distracted.

Kinder rennen über die Straße

Motor skills and abilities

Since the speed at which individuals develop motor skills and abilities can vary greatly, it is almost impossible to put a label on when each step in this development will be completed. It is important to distinguish between skills and abilities in this context. Skills are visible patterns of movement that are performed consciously and deliberately. ?e basic forms of movement include sitting, standing, gripping, running, and jumping, and are learned at a very young age. Especially in their first year of life, a child will acquire an astounding number of new gross and fine motor skills. Each of these skills will improve and become more clearly defined with time, until the child reaches their peak motor activity level at around seven or eight years old. Once this level has been attained, a process of individualization begins. The course this takes can vary greatly, ranging from stagnation and negligible development to very dynamic development of motor performance.

Motor abilities, on the other hand, are the control and functional processes that form the basis for our motions and positions. These include physiological traits such as stamina and strength, but most importantly also cover all of the factors that affect our sensory performance, perception, cognitive abilities and motivation. For example, while the act of throwing an object at a target requires a certain amount of strength, it also requires the ability to judge distance and throwing technique. As such, the corresponding motor abilities cannot be acquired until he other areas of development have reached the necessary level. One example of the complex interplay between different functions is in visual motor ability, where visual information is used to control movement. This ability improves as a child gets older, thus allowing the child to perform the corresponding movements faster, more reliably and with greater precision. Another example is the sense of movement within one's body, or coenesthesia. This term refers to a person's awareness of their own position in a space, which does not develop until between the ages of six and twelve.

Regulating one's balance is also an activity that requires several of our body's functions to work together, which is why smaller children have difficulty staying balanced with their eyes closed, as they rely primarily on visual information for their orientation. As the body matures, vision becomes less important and is superseded by the use of coenesthesia.

One of the largest risk factors in interactions with traffic is the small size of children's bodies. This makes it harder for the children themselves to see past obstacles, and also prevents other road users from seeing them easily.

A sense of balance is most important when it comes to riding a bicycle. The problem in this scenario is caused by the fact that a child's head is quite large in proportion to the rest of their body, which makes hard for them to find their balance. In terms of motor skills and abilities, children should possess the skills required to ride a bicycle by around the age of ten. In order to cycle safely on the road, however, they must be able to utilize a huge number of more complex motion and cognitive processes that involve different functions working together. Children will not possess the appropriate abilities until they are around 14. Due to the intrinsic developments they undergo during puberty, however, they are also more likely to take risks and overestimate their own abilities at this age, which once more increases the risk of accidents.

Cognitive abilities

One of the most elementary cognitive abilities is attention. In the first years of a child's life, this is primarily controlled reflexively – the child simply reacts to external visual or acoustic stimuli. It is not until between the ages of five and eleven that they develop the ability to direct their attention with focus and deliberate intent. This ability reaches adult levels around the age of 14. This ability is extremely important for children in terms of road safety, as they will not possess cognitive control of their own behavior unless they can actually direct their attention toward the traffic around them. As soon as they are distracted, the link to their memory – and thus to their knowledge of how traffic works, the traffic regulations, how to behave, and risk awareness – is lost. Correspondingly, the risk of an accident becomes very high. The phenomenon of distraction persists into puberty. It is a similar story with divided attention, or the ability to pay attention to two or more requirements at the same time. Children especially have difficulty with this when the tasks do not all have the same priority.

Risk awareness

Risk awareness develops in three stages, starting from the age of six. The first stage is the development of an acute risk awareness, whereby a risk is not detected until the actual moment of danger, sometimes leaving little scope to act. Next, at around the age of eight, children develop anticipation risk awareness, meaning they begin to be able to recognize potential hazards as dangerous in advance. Children in this phase can alter or even completely avoid the dangerous situation by taking alternative action. In the last phase, which begins at around nine or ten, children develop preventive risk awareness, which enables them to avoid hazards before they occur. As a restriction, it should be noted that from the anticipation risk awareness phase onward, a child cannot assess risks adequately based solely on their own experiences with traffic – they also require other sources of information, particularly knowledge of the risks associated with particular types of traffic.

This is made more difficult by the fact that risk awareness can fluctuate greatly depending on the situation at hand. Particularly when playing, younger children feel much safer that they actually are in the real traffic situation they are in (high subjective sense of safety combined with low objective safety). In puberty, children are able to recognize risks, but they consciously ignore them or even gravitate toward them during risky cycling maneuvers, when running across the street, or when acting out dares.

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