When Tyler was a toddler, you could pick him up and carry him across the road if he didn’t want to hold your hand. Now that he’s five, he’s pretty heavy to carry — plus he thinks having to hold Mommy’s hand is embarrassing. Is he old enough to cross the street on his own now?
Not according to Philip Groff, director of research and evaluation at Smartrisk. “For three- and four-year-olds, being struck by a car is the third-leading cause of injuries. By the time kids are five, it’s number one. It is a big problem — more than 4,000 children are hit by motor vehicles each year in Canada.”
Linda Ward, program coordinator at SafeKids Canada, says we need to understand what is going on with preschoolers in developmental terms. Even the brightest preschooler is not capable of judging how far away a car is or how quickly it is moving. They also aren’t good at evaluating their own abilities (most will happily tell you that they can run “super-fast”). So they’re likely to dart out in front of a car, even if they see it coming, because they think they have enough time to cross safely.
So what do you do to keep your preschooler safe around cars?
Staying in touch — literally “Supervision is the key,” says Groff. Stick close if your children are playing anywhere near the road. When you are walking together, holding hands should be the rule. “More than an arm’s length away isn’t really supervision,” Groff adds. “They can dart into the road so quickly.”
Your preschooler won’t hold your hand? You may need to hold his arm or wrist. Or your hands aren’t free? Waterloo, Ont., mother of three Kat Murphy says: “Before we cross the road, I announce, ‘Grab a part!’ and my son will say, ‘I have the diaper bag’ or ‘I have a baby leg,’ and off we go. Another thing we do, if my hands are free, is hold hands and skip across the street. Much more fun!”
Parking lot cautions Parking lots pose special risks. Groff points out that cars are often backing up, and the rows of cars can block the driver’s view, making small preschoolers hard to see. In addition, parents are often preoccupied with loading groceries or other tasks.
“You should always buckle your child into his car seat first, then put the shopping in the trunk,” says Ward. Finally, treat the parking lot as a road — insist on holding hands or staying close as you walk through.
Playing it safe Many injuries, Ward says, happen when children are playing in an area where there are no sidewalks and no boundaries between the play area and the road. Seek out a safer location if the parks around your home don’t qualify. Consider lobbying your municipality about adding sidewalks or fences if these aren’t present where your children play.
Environmental hazards More young children are injured by cars when it’s dusk or getting dark, and if it is raining or snowing. So pay special attention during those times.
Ward adds, “Preschoolers are so small and cars so big; when the two collide, the children’s injuries tend to be serious. So it is well worth the extra effort it takes to keep them safe.”
While preschoolers are too young to cross the road alone, Linda Ward of SafeKids Canada says it’s not too early to begin teaching them the rules they’ll need to follow when they are ready. Here are some points to emphasize:
• When crossing where cars have stopped, teach your children to make eye contact with the driver. This helps to reinforce that the driver, not the car, needs to be able to see them.
• Remind them that cars can back up as well as go forward. When you walk past driveways, for example, teach them to be cautious around cars where the engine is running.
• Be a role model — demonstrate how you look both ways before you cross, or how you wait until the “walk” sign appears on the signal lights. And don’t jaywalk or break other rules of the road, even if you’re in a hurry.