By: Phyllis Agran, MD, FAAP
Walking and bike riding are healthy ways to get to and from school. Skipping the school drop-off traffic for more active commutes can contribute to the recommended 60 minutes of
physical activity kids need each day.
Trips powered by feet, rather than gas-fueled vehicles, also can reduce
air pollution and help the
climate. This, in turn, can reduce breathing problems and other health issues in children. Walking can also help make neighborhoods friendlier places.
Here's what parents need to know to keep kids safe as they walk or bike to school or somewhere else in the community.
Walking to school
When is my child ready to walk to school alone?
Children usually aren't ready to start walking to school without an adult until about fifth grade, or around age 10. Younger children are more impulsive and less cautious around traffic, and they often don't fully understand other potential dangers they could come across.
By walking with your children to and from school, you can help them learn the neighborhood, teach them about traffic signs, street signs and directions, and model correct behaviors when crossing streets. It's also a great opportunity for some chat time with your kids.
Keep these tips in mind when walking with your young child to and from school:
When crossing streets, hold your child's hand and always observe the traffic safety laws.
Observe all traffic signals and let the school crossing guard help you.
Be sure to look all ways before crossing the street, and continue to watch for vehicles. Remind children drivers may not always see them.
Consider starting a walking school bus by inviting families in your neighborhood to walk children to school together as a group. Adults may take turns walking with the group, so make sure each child knows the adults in their walking group.
Tweens and teens: walking to school safely
Each child is different. That's why it's important to consider their individual developmental and maturity level when deciding if it is safe for them to walk to school without an adult. Some children may not have the skills to focus on safe pedestrian behavior until they are 10 years or older.
For students walking to school without an adult, some points to consider:
Make sure they stick to a safe route to school, one with well-trained adult crossing guards at every intersection.
If they need to cross any streets on the way to school, practice safe street crossing with them before the start of school. Teach your child to cross at designated intersections. Most pedestrian deaths happen mid-block, not at intersections.
Ideally, they should walk together with at least one neighbor child or older sibling.
Make sure they know how to say "no" if someone they don't know offers a ride, and that they yell and run for help if needed.
Explain that it is not safe to use a
cell phone or text while walking. It distracts and makes them less aware of traffic.
If your child has limited mobility or other disabilities, give them extra time to learn safe pedestrian skills.
Choose brightly colored backpacks, jackets and other accessories, ideally with reflective materials for days when it begins to get dark earlier. Research shows that the hours of 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. are the
riskiest times of day for child pedestrians.
Riding a bike to school
Bike riding is also a great way to get to and from school, when children are ready. Remember kids need to learn to be safe pedestrians before they can be safe bicyclists.
Once kids are ready to roll, here are some basic bicycle safety steps to help keep them safe:
Rules of the road. All bicycle riders should follow the basic rules of the road, which also apply to
skateboards, scooters and other non-motorized vehicles:
Ride on the right, in the same direction as traffic using bike lanes when available.
Stop and look both ways before entering the street.
Stop at all intersections, whether marked or unmarked.
Respect traffic lights and stop signs.
Before turning, use hand signals and look in every direction.
Use your head—and protect it. Make sure your child wears a bicycle helmet, no matter how short or long the ride. Wearing a helmet can cut the risk of head injuries by about 85% and facial injuries by about 65% among bike riders. The helmet should be approved by the
Consumer Product Safety Commission and
Riding ready? Ride with younger children, and don't let them ride on the street. Use your judgment about letting older children ride in traffic. Consider how heavy road traffic is where they'll be riding, how mature they are, and how well they can stay focused on traffic and follow rules of the road.
Practice ahead of time. Practice riding the bike route to school before the first day of school to make sure your child can manage it.
See the light. Children should only ride a bike when there is plenty of
daylight. Wear white or bright-colored clothing to increase visibility.
Distracted riders. Remind bike riders not to talk on the cell phone or text while riding and avoid other distractions like eating.
Bike maintenance. Show children how to check tire air pressure, brakes, and seat and handlebar height and do these things at least once a year.
Safer, healthier kids & communities
Walking and biking to school helps keep children and their communities happy and healthy. Parents and pediatricians can
advocate for child pedestrian safety
(see "Parent to Parent," below). They can support and encourage community programs with resources offered through organizations such as
Safe Routes to School. These include walkability checklists to score your community, for example, and
national events such as Bike to School Day each spring and Walk to School Day in fall.
Uniting to Advocate for Safe Routes to School
By Maria R. Frias
As a proud mother of two boys, I'm always looking for what is best for my children. A big concern for me as a parent has always been pedestrian safety.
One day as my son was walking to his middle school, I followed him out to make sure he crossed the street safely. As he reached the center of the crosswalk, I saw a car speeding down the main street on which the school is located. My son had to run the rest of the crosswalk to make it across the street safely. It terrifies me to think that my son could have been hit by a speeding car while he was on his way to school.
In order to create more awareness about child pedestrian safety, I joined United Parents for Educational Justice (UPEJ), a parent organizing and advocacy group supported by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. I shared my concerns about the high traffic volume, traffic jams and impatient drivers on our children's route to school.
Since I don't own a car, I walk everywhere. Although pedestrians have the right of way, drivers get frustrated and want to speed ahead. It doesn't matter how fast students walk across the crosswalk. There have been many instances of cars tailgating each other and big rigs blocking the crosswalk. Some students go behind or around the cars, but if drivers aren't being safe or cautious, something tragic could happen.
With the support of my son's school, UPEJ presented an official request to the Los Angeles Unified School District Office of Environmental Health and Safety to hire two crossing guards. Then, we had a community forum in our school's Parent Center to raise the issue of pedestrian safety with staff from the offices of Los Angeles City Council and school district authorities.
As a group, we advocated for an electronic speed limit radar sign to notify drivers driving too fast through the school area, as well as an extended crosswalk time. Our advocacy worked, because the timing for pedestrians at the stoplights at two intersections was extended and the crossing time was effectively doubled. However, we continue the fight for additional measures to monitor and control speed.
The impacts span beyond school crosswalks. Nationwide, pedestrian fatality rates in lower-income communities are
more than twice that of higher-income communities. Our entire community is affected by this. As a parent, I will not stop fighting for safe routes to school. Our children deserve to be safe from traffic, violence and stress on the way to and from school.
Maria R. Frias has been a leader with UPEJ since 2018.
This article was first published on the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools
About Dr. Agran
Phyllis Agran, MD, FAAP, serves on the executive committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention. A recipient of the council’s Fellow Achievement Award in recognition of her commitment to youth violence prevention and pedestrian safety, including her work with the National Safe Routes to School Task Force, Dr. Agran has testified at local, state and national hearings to promote child health and safety policies. She is past president of AAP California Chapter 4 and a Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine.