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Kids safer getting to school without the car

The kids are back to school. Parents are happy. The kids? Well, maybe not so much. Everyone, however, is advised to have safety as a top-of-mind subject. Parents intent on driving their kids to school rather than letting them walk provide a number of potential hazards.

Leaving the car and taking it on foot provides a number of benefits. We all know we need to increase daily physical activity, improve the safety of our communities, reduce traffic congestion around schools, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create communities where people choose to walk. Knowing is one thing. Putting it into action is another.

While previous generations may not have walked to school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways, kids did get there under their own steam much more frequently than is the case today.

Concerned about obesity and falling fitness levels, authorities have been encouraging kids to walk, bike or blade to school. In Waterloo Region, the public health department promotes the practice, and planners pay more attention to safe school routes.

From an environmental perspective, every car trip avoided results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And keeping the car away from schools is also much safer: accident statistics show school zones have become one of the most dangerous places in our communities. Families that would like to walk opt to take the car because they don’t want to become another pedestrian statistic.

We’ve become so dependent on driving to school that the ‘school run’ accounts for 25 to 30 per cent of morning rush hour trips.

The Ontario Walkability Study, prepared at the York University Centre for Applied Sustainability, attempted to quantify the extent of the problems caused by travelling to school by car instead of on foot.

Fewer than half of Canadian kids now walk to school, and the figure drops to 10 per cent in the US;

26.8 per cent of Ontario students surveyed said they would like to ride their bicycle to school, but only 3.5 per cent do;

Two out of three Canadian children do not meet average physical activity guidelines to achieve optimum growth and development;

More than 25 per cent of Canadian and American children and youth are overweight.

In explaining their decision to drive kids to and from school, parents typically cite concerns about abduction and traffic safety.

U.S. statistics show parents are right to fear their children could be struck by a car – being killed by a car while on foot is the second leading cause of unintentional death in children under the age of 14. The top cause? Being killed while travelling as a passenger in a car. About 50 per cent of children hit by cars near schools are hit by parents of other students, according to U.S. figures.

As for strangers scooping kids off the streets, the chance a U.S. school child is 13 times more likely to die playing football than to be the victim of abduction.

The media are partly to blame, with reporting on every incident and scare on the continent  leaves the public with the idea things are getting worse. As with other crime statistics, perceptions run contrary to the numbers.

Individual decisions to walk to school provide individual benefits. With enough people taking part, the collective change could make a real difference.

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