Knowledge and Understanding of Road Traffic

25 Apr 2019 The Human Factor
While a knowledge of road traffic covers the reproduction of terminology, rules, and signs that a child or person has learned, and understanding of it also includes the cognitive abilities that are required in order to analyze, a assess, and process individual traffic situations differently. Younger children ten to learn traffic knowledge by heart but have great difficulty applying rules correctly and interpreting signs correctly in real-life situations. It has also been shown that children only actually understand half of the traffic terminology they learn. Generally speaking, understanding of road traffic continues to increase throughout childhood, with the biggest leap coming when children start going to school. From this point onward, they will experience more and more success in applying what they have learned and understood to real-life traffic situations, with their greatest difficulties coming in situations that don't fit the patterns they have learned. In addition to this, the tendency to adapt their behavior statically to fit what they have learned rather than the actual situation in front of them persists for a long time in children. One example of this is crosswalks: Children declare these areas as safe and naturally assume that cars will always stop to let them cross here. Therefore, they often fail to pay attention to what is going on around them properly – or at all – before stepping out onto the crossing.

Changing Perspective

The actions of younger children are based on a very egocentric view of the world. While they are aware of differences between themselves and others, until about halfway through elementary school they see themselves as the center of the world, and assume that others share this perspective. They are not capable of imagining situations from another person's perspective, be that mental or physical. Classic examples of this include the common assumption among children that they can be seen because they can see themselves, or that there are no cars around because they themselves cannot see any due to obstacles.
It takes many years to develop the ability to recognize, see things from, and anticipate other perspectives. This process is not completed until puberty, by which time young people are able to recognize the perspectives of entire groups and take this information into account in their own behavior (old people react more slowly; drivers cannot see pedestrians or cyclists as well in the dark).

Children as Pedestrians

At every stage of their development, the way children use the road differs significantly from the approach taken by their adult role models. Let's take the good news first: Unlike many adults, children very much observe traffic regulations. In their own way, they use crossing aids such as pedestrian crossings and lights, take the shortest route when crossing the street and stop when they see a red light. In all other ways, however, the way children use the road can best be described as erratic and unpredictable. Young children in particular are faster and less calm in the way they use the road. Their movements are less regular, and their attention is often not directed at the traffic on the road. Running, jumping, screaming children at the side of the road are many drivers' worst nightmare. If they are playing or out in groups, drivers need to have both hands on the wheel, keep their eyes wide open, reduce their speed, and be ready to brake at any time. Children often do not pay attention – or at least not enough – to what is happening around them before crossing the road, whether it is a main road or a side street. They generally look to the left and right, irrespective of which direction any vehicles are coming from, and it is not unusual for them to step onto the road suddenly – which can result in an accident if drivers are unable to react quickly enough.
It is also typical for children to adopt a rather static approach when it comes to adapting themselves and their behavior to suit the traffic around them. Depending on their age, they can find it difficult or impossible to adapt situationally. One example of this can be seen in the way children cross the road between parked vehicles. Children stand on the edge of the sidewalk and look from there to see whether the road is clear, even if they cannot see anything from this perspective. They do not stop again when they reach a point from which they can see the road, and do not check again to see whether the road really is clear. On the other hand, it is also common for children to look around them very carefully even before crossing a road with good visibility for them, and they often wait until the road is completely clear before stepping out – which can take quite some time in some areas.

Children as cyclist

Even before children start using their bicycle as a means of getting around and using the roads independently, they use it for sports and playing. The very smallest children often start practicing on training bikes, and most children get their first "real" bicycle while still in preschool. Riding a bicycle is a complex activity that requires not only motor skills and abilities, but also highly developed cognitive and sensory skills and abilities. Sufficient risk awareness and knowledge of the rules of the road are also essential to safe road use. When using a bicycle, children must be able to check over their shoulders without veering off course, brake effectively in a way that suits the situation at hand, monitor traffic attentively, and become part of it without any problem.
However, children are often overwhelmed by this variety of challenges. Younger children especially are unable to perform the necessary procedures without help from an adult. Strictly speaking, this means they are not (yet) suited to riding a bicycle. But caution is also required with older children: According to the German Federal Statistical Office, 10 to 15-year-olds are the group involved in the most accidents as cyclists in Germany. The main causes of this are handling mistakes when turning and a failure to observe rights of way. Insufficient knowledge of traffic regulations is also a problem, especially among younger cyclists.
Many parents recognize this danger to their children, and consequently do not allow them to cycle on their own. A survey conducted by the German Road Safety Council (DVR) in 2012 revealed that 56 percent of parents do not allow first-graders to cycle on their own; for five to seven-year-olds, this figure was 68 percent. 28 percent of parents allowed their children to cycle on their own as long as they believed the child in question was mature enough, the journey short enough, and that there was not too much traffic. 14 percent of those surveyed allowed their firstgraders to cycle on their own without any restrictions.
In terms of psychological development, the reasons for the deficits mentioned above are clear. The basics are acquired throughout childhood and youth over the course of various steps or leaps in development. The scope for speeding up these processes by means of external influence is limited; theoretical and practical training can help, for example, but only if the child in question is ready for it and has already undergone the necessary basic development.
As a fundamental prerequisite for safe road use on a bicycle, the child in question must be able to apply and implement their motor procedures reliably. A child must first have had enough practice in riding a bicycle before they can be expected to take in what is happening on the road around them, and to recognize and pay attention to factors important to their safety. There are a number of relevant predictors that can be used to estimate whether a child possesses sufficient motor skills for cycling on the road: the current age of the child, the age of the child when they start to acquire these skills, and the use of training bikes. Generally speaking, it is assumed that the motor skills required to coordinate their basic task and the additional, safety-related motion requirements (checking over the shoulder, using hand signals when turning, etc.) will overwhelm most children younger than eight.
Even eight to ten-year-olds who possess the necessary practice in their motor skills waste too much of their attention on irrelevant information, and are unable to multitask effectively, as is often necessary when cycling. When performing a cognitive and a motor-skills-related task simultaneously, they will focus more on their motor skills. As a result, it takes them longer to recognize stimuli that provide information relating to their safety, which in turn slows their reaction time and increases the risk of an accident occurring, especially as they will be moving much faster on the bicycle than they are used to doing on foot. Even at twelve, children still take longer to react than adults.
Another critical factor is that children grossly overestimate their abilities as cyclists, and the number of risks they take on the road is thus disproportionately high compared to what they are actually capable of. From a psychological perspective, there are two main leaps in development: between the ages of seven and eight, and thirteen and fourteen, a child's performance will increase significantly in several areas, including reaction time and their ability to travel in a straight line without swerving. But even once their cognitive, motor, and sensory abilities and skills have fully matured, young people do not automatically become safe and reliable road users, as they possess lower risk awareness than adults and tend to overestimate their abilities. This increases the risk of accidents, and is exemplified by a tendency toward risky maneuvers (taking hands off the handlebars, using headphones while cycling) and the decrease in the number of young people willing to wear helmets when cycling.
Other countries, such as Spain, have imposed more regulation on this issue. The Spanish government has made ensuring the safety of children in these situations a priority, and they are generally required by law to wear helmets until the age of 16. Outside of towns and cities, this requirement applies to citizens of all ages.