Why Do We Put the Onus for Traffic Safety on Kids?

It’s Walk-to-School Day, a day when children all over the country get to enjoy the simple experience of traveling somewhere using their own power. It makes me happy because I love seeing the pictures of kids walking with their parents. But it’s a sad day too, because we shouldn’t need a special day to celebrate such a normal, healthy, human activity.

Walk-to-School Day also is also a reminder of the many ways we’ve engineered walking out of the lives of children, and how forbidding our culture and environment can be toward walking.

The tweet at the top of this post from the National Transportation Safety Board is a good example. Here we have a federal safety agency putting the onus for children’s well-being in traffic on… children. There was no tweet from NTSB warning drivers to slow down and be extra careful. (In their defense, the next tweet was a photo of NTSB Vice Chairman Bella Dihn-Zarr accompanying D.C. schoolchildren on their walk to school.)

This is par for the course. Last year, on Bike to School Day, the NTSB Twitter account reminded kids to wear a helmet to “prevent death.” Very encouraging!

Sure, it’s important to teach kids about traffic safety. But how many children follow NTSB on Twitter for safety tips? What exactly is the agency trying to communicate here?

The fact is, even children who follow the rules are not free from risk, because drivers travel at dangerous speeds and fail to yield the right of way when they should. But for some reason we hold children to awfully high standards while tacitly absolving all kinds of dangerous driving behavior.

It doesn’t help when official powers contribute to this false equivalence, implying that the licensed adult driver with the capacity to kill and the vulnerable child trying to get to school are equally responsible for preventing traffic injuries and deaths. It’s a sick part of our culture, and it helps explain why walking to school has become so rare.

13 thoughts on Why Do We Put the Onus for Traffic Safety on Kids?

  1. Maybe if you teach kids at an early age (as I was) to look both ways before crossing the street, you wouldn’t have people who just step out into the street without looking and expect cars to stop. You must not be a parent- perhaps then you would understand.

  2. “The fact is, even children who follow the rules are not free from risk,
    because drivers travel at dangerous speeds and fail to yield the right
    of way when they should.”

    For example, just the other day my 10 year old grandson, who walks three quarters of a mile to school every day, was crossing the one busy street. He was halfway across the street–in the crosswalk, with the “walk” sign–when a driver ran the red light and sped past him. It was only good fortune that kept my grandson from being hit, even though he was following all safety rules.

  3. I’m a parent. We’ve had kids here in NYC who were killed by drivers on on sidewalks. Some have been killed by drivers who have crashed their cars into buildings.


    Other children have been killed *holding their parents’ hands* while legally crossing the street.


    The fact that you — or your children, if you have any — haven’t been killed by an irresponsible and reckless driver is not proof that you have some magical strategy for avoiding tragedy.

  4. There’s parallels with the problem of police shootings. For some reason, the supposedly highly trained, licensed, career police officer is justified in shooting someone “because they were scared” but the random citizen with no such training is supposed to remain calm, not panic, listen carefully, and promptly respond to orders. Those who are supposed to be in control of deadly force or machines somehow manage to shift all the burden to the victims.

  5. As a seasoned New York pedestrian, this emphasis on things like “use crosswalks” seems actively misguided in the sense that it teaches kids to just mindlessly follow the signs. My number 1 priority when crossing the street is what the cars are doing. Number 2 is the crosswalk light (am I going to get caught in the intersection when the light turns green for cars?). The traffic light for cars comes in at a distant third.

    There was a high-profile hit and run DUI at UConn a few years ago where I got to hear some inside details about what, exactly, happened (one of those “my mom’s friend’s son’s girlfriend” connections). Apparently the girl’s friends crossed in the middle of the street, but she insisted on “doing it right” and going to the crosswalk and waiting for the light. Not to try to take blame off the driver but I’m convinced she just blindly accepted what the signs were telling her to do. Now sure, I wouldn’t do this on some of the major stroads in LA, but we know that intersections are the least safe place to cross because drivers are too distracted looking too many different ways; mid-block, they’re at least looking straight ahead, for the most part. So trying to drum it into people’s heads to strictly adhere to what’s legal doesn’t necessarily correspond to teaching them how to stay safe.

    Side note: on occasions where I do drive and I’m wondering how long my light is going to stay green I look to see if I can spot the pedestrian countdowns. Besides being a useful source of information for how likely I am to have to stop, I’d like to think it helps keep my eyes and mind at least a little more focused on pedestrians than the average driver.

  6. I remember this exact issue rearing its ugly head a year or two ago in my area. After a kid on his way to school got killed in a crosswalk with the light by a hit-and-run driver who ran a red light, the City and PD responded by heading to all the elementary schools to provide the kids a crash course reminder in the safety rules for pedestrians.

  7. Part of the reason why there are speed restrictions and high-viz crosswalks around schools is because children by definition are inexperienced in almost all matters of life, including safe street behavior. They’re also smaller and harder to see to boot.

    We should continue to teach kids street safety. But under no circumstances should they be expected to possess an adult level of competence. It is incumbent on adults to pick up the slack and exercise extra caution anywhere children might be, school zone or otherwise.

  8. I too grew up with (actual) parent teachers who made sure I was always careful when I crossed the highway to check the mailbox. We lost 2 dogs on that highway (one each to the parents of a classmate)!
    This may have been in rural Iowa and that almost the only ‘street’ I ever needed to cross, but I assume my childhood experience is universal.

  9. This is not always a good idea. Ped countdowns don’t necessarily match the signals for autos. There’s an intersection I go through regularly where peds have four seconds left on their counter after the light is red, and drivers blow through the intersection because they’re looking at the counter.

  10. Another thing that has to change is the way the media employs passive voice, always treating the vehicle as the active, responsible party, as if the driver was a helpless backseat passenger.

    Like this example from my Twitter feed today. It should read “Driver strikes and drags 4 year old to his death.” Had someone on two wheels been responsible for this death, would the writer have said that the child was hit by a bicycle?

    This is classic windshield perspective and shows how drivers implicitly and prematurely absolve each other of wrongdoing. You can pretty much kill anyone with your car as long as you’re sober and do not flee the scene.

    If you agree, start calling out your local journalists with the hashtag #DriverNotCar.


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