Kids, Carpools & Walking: How a Safety Mentality Creates Unsafe Spaces

In the long-ago days of my misspent youth, I lived in an absolutely flat suburban community named for one of the seven hills of Rome. As children, we all walked to school, crossing two moderately busy streets along the way. On days when it unexpectedly began hailing sideways during the school day, a parent or neighbor would come down to school in a big 1970s land yacht car and pick the 8-10 of us from our end of the street up, piling us like so much wet firewood in the back of the car. One parent, one car.
These days, even on nice days, the name of the game is the car line outside each school. Parking lots are striped to accommodate this single-driver, single-child pickup, generally of kids who live in the area ineligible for free busing — in many Minnesota districts, that distance is 2 miles, although it varies, especially in the core urban areas. In other states, districts have been known to bus kids 2-4 blocks.
Like it or not, one thing to blame for this is a culture of safety and a culture of fear — both justified and unjustified. The car pickup line is one expression of the demise of what’s now known as the “free-range child.” There are a number of expressions:
child in rear-facing car seat
A child in a rear-facing car seat.

Car Seats: Undeniably, car seats make kids safer in cars, especially in the event of accidents. State laws vary, but the recommendation is for kids to use boosters up to nearly 5 feet in height. Per Minnesota Statute 169.685, it is legally required for any child who is both age 8 or younger, and under 4 feet, 9 inches. Save for the boosters allowed at the high end of age/height/weight, most booster seats require securing and install to cars, and makes picking up kids not your own either a challenge or illegal until they’re either tall or 9 years of age.In the 1970s, less than 10% of families regularly used car seats for their children. In 1978, the first state law making such seats mandatory was passed. By 1988, every state had some form of car seat law.

  • Kidnapping Fear: Children are not permitted to walk, even in a neighborhood posse, due to fears of stranger abduction. The statistics do not bear out this fear. Missing Kids says about 58,000 kids a year disappear due to the actions of non-family members, and a mere 115 of these were true stranger abductions. However, due to the media saturation around missing kids — especially white, pretty ones suitable to be featured on Nancy Grace or similar 24-7 news channel shows — the perception is that this number is much, much higher.Meanwhile, per the NHTSA, motor vehicle accidents are the leading killer of children under age 14. More than a quarter-million are injured in similar accidents. Meanwhile, the risk of violent crime against a young child is dropping compared to the days of my youth and that of many other parents. But the media coverage has increased, driving fear.
  • A school built as an island, amid high-speed roadways.

    Fear of Traffic: In many places, traffic patterns have changed over time, and streets that may once have been reasonable for children to cross are less reasonable, due to volume and speed changes. Many subdivisions are built without sidewalks, which are nice features to encourage walking — and in other cases, when sidewalks are proposed as overlay, existing residents resist because “the kids aren’t walking to school anyway.” And many newer schools are not built to connect to the surrounding communities, but instead to serve as fortresses in the midst of a land plot, or like strip malls with close-in parking. Bailey Elementary in Woodbury has gained some notoriety for such a land use, but it’s not exactly unique. Many suburban schools are islands in the middle of fields, surrounded by 4-8 lanes of busy county trunk roads with speeds of 40-55 mph. Not walk friendly, especially for younger grades.

    Plus, there’s all that traffic around schools, even those not ringed by high-speed county highways, thanks to the AM and PM carlines.

  • Public Perception: Schools — and other parents — have been known to call law enforcement and/or child welfare if children are allowed to walk to school or activities alone (or with friends). Parents in some states have been ticketed or cited for allowing such nefarious acts.
  • It’s hard to argue with car seats. Riding in cars is clearly potentially dangerous for kids (and everyone else); in the case of children, the safety equipment standard in cars is not scaled to properly protect them. While car seats discourage carpooling and ride sharing, the safety record of properly installed car seats is excellent, and the statistics back the need for them.

    Everything else? The fear that drives fear of crime helps drive the rest. We must make schools into fortresses, for safety. It’s okay to not build sidewalks, or crosswalks, or have crossing guards, because it’s too dangerous to let children walk anyway so adding safety features to make it safe for them to walk is an unnecessary expense. Without those safety features, it’s too dangerous to walk. It’s a terrible, terrible circle.

    Walking is not being taught to children as something to value. When we value misplaced fear over the use of everyone’s two feet, we make urban planning mistakes and get fat. Where’s the real risk, and how do we remediate it?

    About Julie Kosbab

    Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005, and is no longer lonely in that calling. A past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association, she has 2 children and a garage full of bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations, or read her (seldom updated) blog at Ride Boldly!

    11 thoughts on “Kids, Carpools & Walking: How a Safety Mentality Creates Unsafe Spaces

    1. gml4

      Great points. There’s been a murmuring of parents raising fears of our kids in schools because of recent shootings, and they are making some demands on our school board and administration. Here was my response…

      You can have the best safety plan in the world,
      You can have have the healthiest children,
      Our playgrounds could be brand new,
      Floors could be swept with non-slippery cleaners,
      Food can be cut up in small bits our children won’t choke on,
      Children can be tranquilized so there will be no fighting,

      but terrible incidents and accidents will still happen.

      We should be focused on greater health needs of our children like obesity, healthcare visits, accident prevention, and safe streets.

      Don’t let imagination and fear guide our children’s safety and future. Let’s use our dreams and diligence.

      George Linkert

    2. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

      Great post, Julie. You’re right. This is a terrible circle that’s terribly hard to break out of. With all these elements combined, even parents who are the biggest supporters of kids walking to school have a hard time sending the kids out the door on foot in the morning.

    3. Jeremy Bergerson

      It’s lamentably true that most Americans are overly leveraged on the security side of things. Sometimes this impulse results in good outcomes, such as the near-universal anti-smoking stance that is now commonplace, but which would have seemed unthinkable in the 70s. But some safety-minded views are more ambiguous. For example, I never wore a bike helmet as a kid in the 70s and 80s, and nothing bad ever happened, but I always wear one now and would definitely make my own kids wear one.

      At any rate, doesn’t this post ultimately argue for people living in urban areas, where schools can be reached on foot? I know folks in Kingfield whose kids walk or bike to school, I also know people whose kids walk to Central in St. Paul.

      Perhaps some older suburbs could sustain this kind of activity – I walked to elementary school in Minnetonka. But surely the Woodburys and Lakevilles and Maple Groves are far too hostile and car-centric to support walking.

    4. Julie Kosbab Post author

      There are schools in the suburbs that are walkable or near-walkable. I went on a rant in the not-so-distant past about a Safe Routes initiative to put a sidewalk in leading to Westwood Middle School in Blaine, which is basically walkable for its school population. The sidewalk would have been helpful. The route is missing that last link. Got shot down by NIMFY folks who saw it as city encroachment on property rights, blah blah, also, hoodlums.

      Some of the unwalkable schools in the suburbs are partly design. The school-as-island makes it tough for even kids who live near those schools. At Northpoint, even if you factor out the 4-to-6 lane county highway that will need to be crossed, it’s a good quarter mile from the corner to the school door there. Northpoint hosts K-3, soon to be K-4 in a district realignment. So only the littles who live very close in are realistic once you add the property crossing.

      But some of it is also just the way suburbs have grown, rather than been planned. Not all the uncrossables in the suburbs are truly planned. MN65 through Anoka County is an example of a road suburbs have grown around, and the road hasn’t really adapted to being a suburban road, rather than a rural road.

    5. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

      The evidence on car seats is not unambiguous:

      From Steven Leavitt:

      “More Evidence on Car Seats vs. Seat Belts
      07/09/2005 | 4:46 pm

      Things move quickly in the modern world. Within two hours of posting my academic paper on car seats vs. seat belts on the Freakonomics web page (the first time this paper had seen light of day), another economist found the paper and tested its hypotheses on a very different data set and reported back the results.

      The economist is Paul Heaton, a graduate student at the University of Chicago and a former co-author of mine. (Our affiliation is largely irrelevant here — he just happened to have data handy to test my results — but I mention it in the interest of full disclosure). The data he has are from New Jersey motor vehicle crashes. The big difference between his data and mine are that he has all crashes (even if no one dies. I only had access to crashes in which someone died. This difference is important, because a concern in the fatal crash data is what economists call “sample selection.” The choices people make about what safety device to use will affect whether they die, which in turn affects which crashes I see in my data.

      Heaton replicated the most basic specifications in my paper. His results are remarkably similar. He found no difference in the death rates or incapacitating injuries for children in car seats versus children using adult seat belts. Like me, he found a slight advantage for car seats in preventing non-incapacitating injuries relative to adult seat belts (car seats offered a 10% improvement for these less serious injuries in both of our samples). The only difference is that in his data the gap in injuries between car seats and seat belts is statistically significant, whereas in my data set it was not.

      When I compare my findings to the existing NHTSA estimates on fatalities, I can see how our approaches differ and why we get different answers. What is more puzzling to me is why my results and Heaton’s both suggest very little injury benefit of car seats, but the medical literature often finds 70% (!!) reductions of injuries with car seats relative to seat belts. We find reductions that are an order of magnitude smaller. They use very different methods — surveying people in the weeks after crashes for instance — but still it is really a puzzle. Which is why, when you read my paper, I am extremely cautious in interpreting the injury findings.
      I hope that the medical researchers, Heaton, and I can all work together to try to make some sense of the conflicting results being generated by these different methodologies to resolve this important question.”

      The academic article is here:

      And then you might consider that car seats drive people to get larger vehicles for fertile families, which are generally safer for the vehicle occupants, and less safe for the rest of the world. At any rate, they are one of the driving factors in the vehicle size arms race we saw in the 1990s.

    6. Marie

      Thanks for this article. We live in a medium rural MN town of 25,000 with sidewalks and walkable schools, and it’s great. The kids have so much fun being independent walking to school and I’m glad to see them happy. We have adult crossing guards for the busy intersections and kids as guards at less dangerous ones. I’m already coaching my almost-5 year old about her walk to school 7 blocks away and how she can be responsible doing it. The key is, like you say, community support!

      [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    7. Jeb

      This can be a problem in smaller towns, too. In BBE’s case, all students (especially elementary) that are on the opposite side of the main road in town (not horrendously bad, but certainly has a fair amount of traffic, including truck traffic) are made sure to be within two blocks of a bus stop. Thus, students who may be able to walk the four blocks instead “must” walk two blocks to a bus stop, only to be bused across the highway to the school.

      Certainly, safety is a factor. And the closest homes affected would be two to three blocks walking distance from the school. But maybe we can allow middle and high schoolers to make that walk.

      The other concern would be cold weather. Easily solved by bundling up well, but parents will fear that their kids will take off their gloves or lose them halfway through the day, and then have to make the 10-minute walk back without gloves.

      Other rural schools are built as fortresses of sorts, which is also frustrating. There’s a huge parking lot in front of the Melrose schools, for instance, and I can’t imagine that being conducive to walking. What’s extra frustrating is that it’s in an otherwise residential area, so it wouldn’t be that hard to make it conducive to walking.

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