Safe Routes to School Vindicated: Injuries Reduced

How satisfying to find a research report that verifies what we have all believed, and supported congressional funding for:  roadway design improvements (sidewalks, bike lanes, stop signs, traffic-calming, crosswalks, signage, lighting, etc) do indeed reduce school-age pedestrian injuries. Data are important in these times of limited funds and fiscal skeptics. The report by Charles DiMaggio and Guohua Li that went online in Pediatrics on January 14, 2013 provides sound evidence that implementation of the Safe Routes to School program in New York City has contributed to a 44% decrease in pedestrian injury in school-age children during school-travel hours[i].

Through an analysis of motor vehicle crash data in New York City between 2001 and 2010 the authors analyzed annual pedestrian injury rates for different age groups and for different times of the day – specifically during school travel times – in different census tracts. While the census tracts that had received no SRTS funding or interventions showed no reduction in injuries, those census tracts that did receive SRTS interventions showed reduced annual injury rates for school children of 44%.

Departments of Transportation in all 50 states have introduced safety improvements to streets immediately adjacent to approximately 10% of the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. Until this research, however, there were no studies examining whether these improvements reduced children’s vehicle injury rates. This study shows that the funding has been very well invested.

Research data in Europe in the early ‘80s showed that traffic accidents pose a severe risk to children. A child hit by a vehicle traveling at 50 kph (30 mph) has only a fifty percent chance of survival. However, if the vehicle is traveling at 30 kph (18 mph) the child has a ninety percent chance of survival. Moreover, the trauma of being involved in an accident can scar the child’s psyche for many years. Speed limits are essential in making streets safe for children, and the traffic calming, crosswalks and other roadway improvements reduce traffic speed. This data helped to spur the traffic calming movement in Europe that took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

In North America, fear of the physical and psychological dangers of traffic may well contribute to parents’ unwillingness to allow their children free range – though these limitations on a child’s need to develop autonomy and be active in their neighborhood may exert greater damage to their psychological and physical health (obesity, isolation, depression, over-dependency, recklessness, etc).

If we care about our children’s well-being and healthy development we have no choice but to make their built environment safer. So far, we have only increased safety in the immediate vicinity of 10% of US elementary and secondary schools. But every school should be safe for children to access on foot or by bike – and all neighborhoods should be made safe for children to negotiate on their own, to go to the park, shops or to visit friends. And no new neighborhood should be built with unsafe streets.

The benefits of safe streets go far beyond getting children to and from school without injury. Children need the physical exercise of being able to play on their streets; they need to develop independence at every age by exploring on their own a little further, down the street, around the corner, to the grocery store and eventually across town. They need the social freedom and social skills this helps to develop, being able to meet their friends at the park, talk to their neighbors on the street and begin to recognize familiar adult figures.

We have a long way to go – but we are moving in the right direction: this research report proves it.

[i] DiMaggio, Charles and Guohua Li. (2013) Effectiveness of a Safe Routes to School Program in Preventing School-Aged Pedestrian Injury. Pediatrics 2013;131:290-296. Online at: