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Tips for Safer Routes to School

By Russell Houston and Beverly Huey

No matter how your child gets to and from school, there are risks that have not been well understood or publicized up until now. That's because while injuries and fatalities involving school buses are easy to identify, accidents by other travel modes are often not coded in a school-related category because the purpose of the trip isn't identified or reported.

Frustrated by this lack of information and confusion surrounding the issue, the U.S. Congress directed that the National Academies' Transportation Research Board (TRB) examine the relative risk of death or injury to students depending on the mode of transportation they take to school.


The Statistics

Each year approximately 800 school-age children are killed in motor vehicle crashes during normal school travel hours. This figure represents about 14 percent of the 5,600 child deaths that occur annually on U.S. roadways and 2 percent of the nation's yearly total of 40,000 motor vehicle deaths.

The TRB' report The Relative Risks of School Travel: A National Perspective and Guidance for Local Community Risk Assessment estimates, on a per-mile and per-trip basis, relative risks by mode of travel. (See the table, above right.) The highest rate of student injuries and fatalities on a per-trip basis during normal school travel hours (September 1 through June 15, Monday through Friday, 6:00 a.m. to 8:59 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 4:59 p.m.) occurs for passenger vehicles with teenage drivers: roughly eight times higher than the rate for those driven by adults. The second highest rate is for student bicyclists. School buses and other buses have the lowest injury and fatality rates.


Reducing Risks

To educate children about traffic safety and implement a successful school safety education program, it's important to understand the abilities and limitations of school-age children. Even with training, young elementary school-age children cannot be relied upon to make consistent, safe traveling decisions. Indeed, the pedestrian road accident rate has been shown to be a function of age. It's been suggested that the degree of maturity necessary for safe behavior is reached between the ages of 9 and 12.

The TRB report includes a series of risk-reduction checklists with types of actions that could reduce the risks associated with each school travel mode. Schools that have in place risk-reduction techniques can have risk rates below those identified using nationwide data. Parents, as well as schools and law officials, can help.

Russell Houston and Beverly Huey are senior program officers at the Transportation Research Board (TRB), a division of the National Academies, which include the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. The mission of TRB is to promote innovation and progress in transportation through research

Checklist for Bicycling and Walking

  • Is appropriate crossing protection provided at intersections (e.g., crossing guards, signals, special signage)?
  • Are students trained in safe bicycling and walking behaviors and practices?
  • Are young bicyclists and walkers supervised or accompanied en route?
  • Are bicycle helmets required and in use? Is compliance enforced?
  • Are safe and secure bicycling and walking routes designated?
  • Are bicycle paths and sidewalks available and in good repair?
  • Are traffic flow patterns designed to avoid or minimize people-vehicle and vehicle-vehicle (e.g., bus and passenger vehicle) interactions/conflict?
  • Are students on bicycles required to dismount and walk their bicycles on school property?
  • Are minimum walking distances realistic, given the  associated risks?
  • Are traffic control devices properly installed and maintained?

More information can be found at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.