child in rear-facing car seat

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!