Kimberly Voelkel did exactly as her parents had taught her. Walking her usual route home from school, she reached a crosswalk across from Calgary’s Foothills Hospital. She put her arm out, waited for cars to stop, made eye contact with the drivers. When she cleared two lanes, cars behind her started to go, but another vehicle gunned it around them, striking the 11-year-old in front of horrified onlookers. She flew five metres and landed on her head at the side of the road.
Kimberly’s head was split open, her face and head encrusted with gravel; her arm was broken. She told her mother, “I had my hand out and saw her coming and tried to jump out of the way.” The driver had been rushing to a medical appointment; she was charged.
Five years later, after stitches in her face and head and physiotherapy for her hand and arm, Kimberly is doing well. But she remains a stubborn statistic. Over the last 10 years for which there are figures, 26,684 Canadian children were struck by vehicles; 358 of them died. While annual figures have declined over that decade, pedestrian collisions remain among the top three causes of injuries and death to children up to age 14.
Any child hurt by a vehicle is one too many, says Alan Drummond, head of emergency medicine at Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital in Ontario, and chair of public affairs for the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians. “We don’t like the word ‘accident’ because we find the situation was preventable, and there’s been a problem all along. There’s a science to injury prevention: education, engineering and legislation.”
Kimberly Voelkel’s case reflects Drummond’s point. In Alberta, the placement of flashing lights above crosswalks is at municipal discretion; there were no lights at the crosswalk Kimberly used. Provincial legislation requires cars to stop and wait until a pedestrian reaches the other side. In Kimberly’s case, the cars went forward behind her when she was halfway across.
After the accident, Kimberly was afraid to walk to school on her own, so her parents drove her most days. Now she takes a bus to high school, but she’s still skittish at intersections and in parking lots.
You can’t entirely blame parents for keeping kids in cars. “Statistically, for children, walking has a higher crash injury rate per kilometre of travel than driving,” says Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Victoria. In fact, most experts attribute the overall decline in pedestrian fatalities to the fact that kids are being driven more and walking less. While driving may be technically safer, Litman says, it’s not good for children — or our communities. “As more people walk, drivers tend to be more cautious. So as the total amount of walking and cycling increases in a community, the risk tends to decline,” he argues.
The good news is that change is in the works, as we learn more about children’s behaviour and as communities across the country target dangerous roads and intersections for safety improvements. “We need to recognize that kids will be kids; they need to play, and we need to protect them,” says Pam Fuselli, acting executive director of Safe Kids Canada, a national advocacy organization.
Teaching kids better
“Look both ways” may have been enough when you were in school. Not anymore. “We now say, ‘Look left, look right and look left again,’” says Fuselli. Other key rules children should learn, according to Safe Kids:
• Always cross at corners and crosswalks, not diagonally or between parked cars.
• Stop before stepping into the road; look left, look right and look left again, listen for traffic and wait until cars stop or the street is clear.
• Look drivers in the eye to make sure they’ve seen you.
• Keep looking and listening until you’ve crossed the street.
• Be extra alert at a corner with no lights.
• Walk on the sidewalk whenever you can; if there is no sidewalk, keep as far from the road as you can, facing approaching traffic.
As important as what you tell your kids is how often you say it. “Parents may assume because they have walked their kids to and from school for a year, their children know how to cross the street,” says Barbara Morrongiello, a professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “That’s not the case if you haven’t instructed them.” Adds Fuselli: “When you walk with children, teach pedestrian safety rules every time.”
If you have sons, you’ll need to work harder to get that message across. More boys than girls are hurt and killed by cars in all age groups. Morrongiello, who has three sons, is researching why. “We are finding boys and girls will identify hazards in the same way, but girls think, ‘Wow, I could get hurt.’ Boys have more of an optimism bias: ‘Oh, there are hazards, but I won’t get hurt.’”
Making streets safer
The most dangerous streets in Canada are straight and wide, with high traffic volumes; they have parked cars on either side so kids have to enter the street to see if cars are coming. Their speed limits are between 40 and 60 kilometres an hour — typical of many residential streets.
Some communities try to fix a dangerous road through engineered traffic-calming measures, such as speed bumps, rumble strips, sidewalk extensions, curb extensions and traffic circles. And municipalities are starting to listen to concerned parents and pedestrians.
One example: In Peterborough, Ont., northeast of Toronto, there’s been a push to build more sidewalks, after decades with bylaws that allowed development without them. In one area, children were bused to two local elementary schools, not because they lived far away, but because the sidewalk-less roads were deemed unsafe. The City of Peterborough built new sidewalks in the area last year, and more than $500,000 will be spent annually on a 10-year plan to build sidewalks in high-priority areas.
Speed can mean the difference between life and death. A child hit by a car travelling 50 kilometres per hour has an 80 percent chance of being killed, says Fuselli; for a car going 30, the risk drops to 20 percent. Safe Kids is encouraging municipalities to take on speed reduction campaigns, recommending speed limits on all residential roads be 30 kilometres per hour.
Edmonton emergency physician Louis Hugo Francescutti explains: “If you can reduce speed in a community by one kilometre, you reduce fatalities by five percent.” Francescutti, a board member with St. John Ambulance, urges parents to drive within speed limits themselves, and to push for police to enforce limits and monitor problem spots.
That squeaky wheel may be needed. While police forces typically base their road safety planning on an area’s accident stats, child pedestrian safety is not usually among their top priorities because more children are hurt or killed as passengers than as pedestrians, says Stan McNeil, head traffic officer for the RCMP. Drunk driving and non-use of seat belts are bigger concerns (and, of course, these affect kids’ safety too).
For parents who want to create change in their communities, the process can be agonizingly slow. Still, change is possible, as Toronto mom Allyson Hewitt learned when she set out to improve a dangerous intersection near her home in the city’s west end. “I’d hear the screeches of cars stopping before the crosswalk; I thought, this is unacceptable,” says Hewitt. Drivers had to turn a curve just before the crosswalk, often facing blinding sun, at the genteelly named intersection of Evelyn and Annette. With three elementary schools in the area, there was a crossing guard at peak times, but Hewitt was still concerned about the safety of her son and other students. She petitioned her city councillor, got the three schools on board, then lobbied the City of Toronto traffic section. The street was put on a list to await funding. When she saw her councillor at a social event, she grabbed another parent to do more persuading. After 18 months, a light was installed. Hewitt’s advice: “Be persistent, be a pest. We don’t design streets for kids; we have to think about that from a child’s point of view.”
Buoyed by successes like this, experts such as Fuselli are finding reasons for optimism. “With more attention to safer road environments plus a focus on child health, the efforts toward more safe, walkable communities is growing in this country.”
Kids protecting kids
In Alberta, student volunteers act as crossing guards. Financed by the Alberta Motor Association, together with partners including city police forces, some 17,000 students in grades five and six are trained to escort younger kids safely across the road each year. The students are supplied with protective gear and incentives such as money for pizza parties at their school. Colleen Sim-Copeland, an AMA regional coordinator, says, “We’ve never had a child hit or injured during the course of the program.”
Pedestrian safety age by age
0 to 4 years
This is when parents tend to be most vigilant supervising kids around cars; consequently, children this age are at the lowest risk of being hit or killed by vehicles. Of course, little ones can’t understand the risks of the road. This age group needs to be supervised around traffic at all times. Hold your child’s hand as you near the road or strap her into a stroller. For extra safety, dress her in bright colours and reflector tape. And it’s never too soon to start modelling good traffic behaviour: crossing at lights, watching for cars to stop at crosswalks. If you’re pushing a stroller, be cautious at intersections and crosswalks.
5 to 9 years
The risk to kids increases in this age group — especially among boys. “The five- to nine-year-olds are starting to get out of the house more; they are a little more independent,” says Pam Fuselli, acting executive director of Safe Kids Canada. “They are shorter in stature and harder to see, and their capabilities to understand the road and cars are still developing.”
Then there’s their attitude. Fuselli says kids often assume they can beat the car or that the driver will stop. “One of the things we teach is to ensure the driver has seen you, to make that eye-to-eye contact, and there’s some message sent from the driver to you that you can cross.”
With kids in the early school years, you should still be holding their hands to cross. By age nine or so, most children will be able to cross familiar streets on their own — as long as they’ve been coached in the safety rules. Kids aged five to nine are most likely to be hit trying to cross a road with no traffic lights, and one in seven crashes in this age group happens when a child emerges from between parked cars.
10 to 14 years
Oh, those tweens and teens: They really believe that nothing can happen to them as they saunter along, talking on cellphones and listening to iPods. But this is the highest-risk group for pedestrian injuries. So vigilance is still key. It’s only at age 12, experts say, that most children have fully developed the cognitive skills to assess traffic risk and cross unfamiliar streets alone.
Where to learn more