Scare-your-pants-off Routes to School?

via Mikael Colville-Andersen /

via Mikael Colville-Andersen /

I’ve never really loved the name “Safe Routes to School”, I’ve always felt that it had that tinge of “it’s an iffy way to get to school but we’re encouraging you to do it anyway and we’ll try and find a safe route for you.”  I even came up with an alternate name at one point that I thought fit my way of thinking about it a bit more (and that would go over better with the kids) “FARTS”, Fun and Active Routes to School.  Would probably be hard to get federal funding for that program though.

I remember my walks to school as fun filled times of discovery. I have distinct memories of trails through forests and wild spaces that I have since re-visited to find them to be tiny ‘goat trails’ through vacant lots.  My imagination had turned them into great wonders.  I have a lot of blanks in my childhood memories but the routes I walked (and later biked) to school are pretty embedded in there.

I just finished listening to Lenore Skenazy’s book “Free-Range Kids, giving our kids the freedom we had without going nuts with worry” and as a new parent was relieved to hear the comforting words she offered up.  The ideas matched up with what I already felt but didn’t have the societal context to back up, everything out there was telling me how dangerous it was but I just never felt like it was that bad.  And it’s not!  We’re way too freaked out!  I’d like to assign the book as required reading for all the parents out there.  She also has a great Free-Range Kids Blog.

Just yesterday I read another great blog piece by Mikael Colville-Andersen from Copenhagen.  He writes a popular blog on “bicycle culture” from the perspective of a community that really doesn’t have a bike culture, they just have a lot people who ride bikes to get around.  In the entry “Safe but Somehow Scary” he talks about the shift that is even occurring in Denmark based on the Danish Road Safety Council’s “fear campaigning.”  He states that “since the early 1990’s, the Road Safety Council’s scare tactics are directly responsible for the sad fact that the number of children driven to school has risen 200%.”  Even the Copenhagen police see the issue:

“When I speak with parents they say that they drive their children to school because it’s too dangerous to walk or cycle. But my experience is that there are many, many school routes where children from 3rd Year can walk or cycle alone. All that is required is that parents take the time to practice with their children and train them to understand what to look out for”, says Michael Bjørkman.

Sounds a lot like what we are working with here in our country and town as well.  We have a lot more to overcome here though to get to the point where cycling is seem as a ‘normal’ form of transportation. It used to be that it was an okay mode for kids but not much of a ‘grown-up’ form of getting around.  Now we’re even too scared for our kids to ride (or walk) around our communities and it’s become somewhat more accepted as an ‘adult’ form of transport.  We might not have a “century old perception” of cycling as normal as they do in Denmark but I feel like we are on our way to a broader “acceptance”.  We won’t be able to get there until we get over the danger aspect and recognize that it IS a safe, healthy, normal and FUN way to get around.  In other words, more FARTS!!

PS 1–  No, the child in this post is not wearing a helmet and yes, it is the law in Oregon that all children under 16 must wear a helmet.  However, this child is riding in Denmark, where it is not the law.  Read Mikael’s post for some of his thoughts on the helmet issue, I won’t go into much more detail except to say that helmets can be a good tool for protecting you in a crash.  It’s a good idea for kids to wear them, but then again it’s a good idea for motorists too.

PS 2– I just had to post these “guidelines” from Mikeal’s post because I thought they were interesting.  In my talks with parents in Eugene it seems 10-11 is the age they start feeling comfortable letting their children walk to school on their own (and 12-13 for cycling)… that’s for those who are even “brave” enough to “let” them. As a reference I’ve added in the typical grade level for kids at these ages.

3-4 years (pre-school): Children can learn simple pedestrian rules but they are easily distracted and react impulsively if something catches their attention. Hold the child’s hand and keep the child on the side farthest away from the traffic as possible.

4-5 years (Kindergarten): Start bicycle training where there is no traffic. It’s too early to let children walk or cycle alone. They cannot judge a dangerous situation.

5-7 years (K-1): Children can keep focus on the traffic for short periods and walk alone on quiet streets. Most can judge an obvious danger and cross streets with a good view of the traffic but intersections are still hard to tackle. Start with bike riding on streets without too much traffic if the child can cycle in a straight line and is good at braking.

6-7 years (1st-2nd): Children can walk alone to school on safe routes. According to the law they have to be six years old to cycle alone in the traffic but it is still tricky for them to judge distance and speed so they should be accompanied by an adult when cycling to school.

8-10 years (2nd-4th): Most children are now able to judge the traffic situation and can walk alone to school. They can also take a bus or train if the trip is simple. If the route to school is familiar and safe with light, slow traffic, they can cycle to school alone.

10-12 years (5th-6th): At this age most children can handle a more complicated route to school alone on a bicycle and tackle public transport that requires a change of bus or train.

12 years (6th): Children who have had training and experience can judge the traffic almost as good as an adult and can now freely transport themselves alone. If they are inexperienced on a bicycle they need the same kind of training as small children.

via: Politiken

2 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 December 24

    Good post; important stuff.

    Perhaps we have “devolved” a bit cycling-wise over the years; my own experience with traffic as a child was (in a suburb of Cleveland, OH):

    Age 5: walked to school on my own after the first day, including crossing a 5-lane arterial (of course with a crossing guard, though).

    Age 6: learned to ride a bike w/o training wheels; immediately started wandering the neighborhood; usually on the roadway (my street was a cut-through and had modest traffic) (Didn’t bike to school. It was really too close, and the principal only allowed it if you lived beyond a reasonable walking distance.)

    Age 11: rode to a regional park about 6 miles from home with a friend, crossing a few arterial roads along the way

    Age 12: rode as far as 15 miles from home one-way

    Age 14: first century

  2. 2009 December 24

    Great article, kids need to be outside.
    Death and disease by inactivity supersedes death by head injury on a bike.
    The lack of a helmet is not the pressing danger.
    The speed and mass of cars is.
    Children build relationships while walking and playing outside.
    Nothing we do inside can simulate or stimulate as do the outdoors.

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