Teaching children to cross

children crossing, Fauntleroy at Alaska, West Seattle (Seattle Bike Blog)
children crossing, Fauntleroy at Alaska, West Seattle (Seattle Bike Blog)

Streetsblog today posted an article “Our Streets Fail to Work for Children” which referred in turn to articles from Akron and Seattle. I commented on the Seattle Bike Blog post “We are failing our kids: A look at Seattle’s terrifyingly normal streets,” but I’d like to amplify my comments and specifically talk about pedestrian education.

Poor pedestrian infrastructure, as documented in these posts, is everywhere, more so in the suburbs and rural areas than in urban areas, but everywhere. The problems include:

  • crosswalks that are not maintained by regular repainting
  • lack of advance stop bars to keep vehicles back from the crosswalk
  • lack of advance yield lines at mid-block crossings (where there is no traffic control like stop signs or signals) to keep vehicles back from the crosswalk
  • motor vehicle parking right up to the intersection or crosswalk, which reduces visibility of pedestrians by drivers, and of vehicles by pedestrians
  • crosswalks are not marked (painted) in locations where they should be, where there is a significant number of pedestrians, or where children, elderly and disabled cross
  • long distances between crosswalks, which forces pedestrians to cross at locations where drivers feel that they have the right of way
  • pedestrian signal or regular signal cycles that are too short for many people to complete their crossing before the light changes
  • posting of “no pedestrian crossing” signs where it is not dangerous, but simply for the convenience and speed of drivers
  • posted speed limits that are too high, and lack of enforcement of posted speed limits

Each of these is worth a post in and of itself, and bad driver behavior is worth many posts, however, my point here is talk about pedestrian education for children (and other people).

Children can protect themselves to some degree against bad infrastructure and bad driver behavior by learning safe crossing techniques. Safe crossing includes:

  • Pick the best place to cross, which is not always at marked crosswalks or intersections. We have built streets and roads where the distance between safe crossings to far too long, but children can still make decisions about the best place.
  • “Stop at the edge, look left, look right, look left again.” This always applies, even when there are pedestrian signals, traffic signals, or stop signs. Children should know that some drivers will violate the law, and they need to be ready for that.
  • “Everyone looks.” Each person, no matter what their age, must look for themselves and make their own decision about whether it is safe to cross. Children developmentally have a difficult time judging the speed of vehicles, but their natural caution about crossing in front of vehicles, which sometimes causes them to not cross when it is safe is a good thing, and they gradually make more accurate decisions as they gain experience. I see far too many children depending on their parents or older person to decide whether it is safe, and I see far too many parents and adults making poor decisions, so “everyone looks” is a key part of my pedestrian lessons.
  • Continue looking all the way across the street until safely on the other side.
  • Never cross in front of a vehicle until it has stopped, and you’ve made eye contact with the driver. If the driver waves you across, continue to look at that driver and for other vehicles. If you don’t feel safe crossing in front of a vehicle that has stopped, step back from the edge or curb so that the driver knows they can cautiously proceed.
  • Always be alert for other vehicles that don’t stop. Don’t step into the next lane from the protection of a stopped vehicle until you’ve looked again (look left, look right, look left again) to make sure all other vehicles are stopped. This is called the multi-lane threat, and it is the greatest risk most pedestrians face. In the Sacramento area, it is the leading cause of pedestrian fatalities.
  • “Don’t run.” If a vehicle suddenly appears or is going faster than expected, it is OK to walk fast, or reverse directions, or wait on a median, but not OK to run. Running may lead to falling down, particularly for younger children, and that is the worst result.

In the photo used to illustrate both the Streetsblog and Seattle Bike Blog posts, it looks as though the children are following one another into the crosswalk. They are making two errors:

  1. The children are ignoring the flashing red hand and countdown pedestrian signal. They should not be entering the crosswalk once the white walker signal has disappeared. In some situations the signal cycle or countdown is long enough to cross after the flashing starts, but young children should not be making such a decision because they don’t have enough experience with timing and their own walking speed to make that decision (and in some places it is illegal to start in any case). Again, this does not justify the fact that transportation agencies routinely set signal timing so that there is not enough time for pedestrians to safely cross. The child can make a decision to be safe even when the traffic engineer has made a decision to be unsafe.
  2. The children are following the person in front of them, rather than making their own independent decision based on what they see when they “look left, look right, look left again” and look at the signal.

I don’t know what this photo actually shows. Is it a walking school bus? A walking field trip? An after-school or youth activity? I would hope that the adult would have taught or reviewed safe crossing techniques with the children, and if appropriate, practiced safe crossing in a lower traffic / higher safety setting, before setting off to cross a stroad (street built like a high speed road) such as the one shown.

I don’t say this to justify in any way poor infrastructure or bad driver behavior, just to say that we can help children protect themselves through pedestrian education. Is there any more important topic we can be teaching them in school?

Children have a right to safely walk and bicycle to school. Part of that means making our streets safer for them, and everyone else, and controlling driver behavior so that it doesn’t threaten children who are walking and biking. But it also includes educating children to make the best decisions in the horrible world we have constructed for them.

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