Back to School: Is it Safe for Kids to Walk to School?

What’s the safest way for children to get to school? From walking, to carpools or school buses, parents have a few options to pick from—each with their own list of pros and cons.

Over the past few decades, though, walking to school has dramatically decreased from 48 percent of K-8th graders in 1969 to a mere 13 percent in 2009. Despite what this downward trend may suggest, however, streets are generally becoming safer for children. Better traffic infrastructure around schools, more crosswalks and guards, and successful safety campaigns have helped in decreasing child pedestrian injuries and fatalities since 1995.

child pedestrian fatalities chart
Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Traffic Safety Facts

Still, 236 children died and another 10,000 were injured while walking in 2013.

While the numbers are shocking, especially for parents of young children, our communities can work together to drastically decrease pedestrian injuries and fatalities.

Over the years, Safer-America has talked with many child safety experts and advocates on back to school safety. Below is our combined efforts for best practices for the active children walking to and from school.

SAFETY TIPS FOR CHILDREN WALKING TO SCHOOL

  • Don’t Walk Distracted: It’s estimated one in four high school students cross the street while distracted, leading many experts to label distracted walking as one of the riskiest pedestrian behaviors. Mike Mitchell, a Birmingham personal injury attorney, says teaching kids to put their phones down while walking to school is as equally as important as teaching 15-year-olds about distracted driving. Teach your kids from an early age to remain aware of their surroundings and other pedestrians as they walk—especially in early mornings or after dark.
  • Always Use Crosswalks: More than 70 percent of pedestrian deaths happen when a pedestrian crosses the street outside of the intersection, according to Safe Kids Worldwide. While your child may like to cut corners while running the mile in P.E., it’s a risky activity off the field. Even when using the crosswalk, teach children to look left, right and then left again. Though repetitive, the “left again” is actually the most important part. In the time it takes someone to look away and back again, a car traveling 35 mph can travel 155 feet, or the length of four school buses.
  • Stranger Danger vs. Good Strangers: While parents often focus on bad strangers or stranger danger, child psychiatrist Dr. Polly Dunn emphasizes the importance of teaching children what types of strangers can help them if they ever feel in danger. These “good strangers” may include teachers, neighbors, policeman or an adult man or woman with small children. Many police officers also suggest young walkers to carry cell phones in case of emergencies (but not for distracted walking).
  • Dress Children in Bright Clothes: While you don’t need to layer your child in a mini construction worker outfit, dressing kids in brighter clothes can help them stay visible to drivers. This is most vital for kids who walk home at night—ľ of teen pedestrian deaths happen between 7pm and 7am. If your child has a late sports practice or is coming home from dinner at a friends house, make sure they aren’t adorned in all dark clothing.
  • Pick the Safest Route: Some schools work with local officials to outline designated safe walking zones for children walking or bicycling to school. For schools without such designations, however, parents can still map their own walkway. Juliann Sheldon, Safety Press Officer at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, outlined questions parents should ask themselves when designating a route for their kids:
    • Are there pedestrian sidewalks along this route?
    • Are there highly visible crosswalks?
    • Are there any paths with pedestrian channeling devices?
    • Is it by a highway or too secluded?

The last point is a common question: is it better for kids to follow a busy street considering the risk of a pedestrian accident or follow a more secluded path which may carry a greater risk of abduction?

In general, experts agree the best path is dependant on the child but should always include sidewalks and crosswalks. But if still torn, in a previous interview with Safer-America, Michael Spagnoletti, Community Relations & Crime Prevention Officer, said he prefers children “travel along busy streets provided there are safe lanes/sidewalks for them to walk. Not highways but also not secluded roadways.”

No matter what path you predetermine, be sure to walk it yourself to ensure there’s no surprises. Then, walk it with your child a few times prior to sending them off on their own. Ideally, kids will have neighbors they can consistently walk with, as well.

When Should I Let My Child Walk to School?

Unfortunately, picking which way your child walks to school is a little more clear cut then deciding when they’re old enough. There’s no magic age for kids; however, parents should consider their child’s cognitive skills and ability to follow directions. Other factors may include how far away their school is, weather conditions, if they’re walking in a group or solo and how easy the walk is, etc.

Depending on all the above variables, there is a general consensus that 6 and 7-year-olds should be able to walk to school in a group while most 10-year-olds can walk alone. If you’re unsure if your child is truly ready, try using Gavin de Becker’s “Test of Twelve”. While actually designed to see if children are ready to stay home alone, it can also be used to asses if they’re ready to walk to school. If your kids answer the 12 questions to your satisfaction, they are ready to hit the sidewalks.

Once they’re off on their own, it’s important parents remember the many pros of walking to school to counterbalance the natural worry. From your child gaining a sense of independence and increased exercise to helping lower air pollution and decreasing bus costs, your child and community has a lot to gain by safely walking to and from school.

If you’re a parent of a child who walks to school or about to be, we’d love to hear your tips in the comments below. How did you know your child was ready? How often did you practice the walking route before the first day of school? What are some other pros you’ve discovered now that your child is a seasoned walker?

37 comments

Marie W
Marie Wabout a year ago

thanks for sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda M1 years ago

I walk my younger daughter to school even though we live in a small town and the route to school is off the main street. She's in fifth grade, so she'll be in middle school next year and able to walk by herself (the middle and high schools start at the same time, so there'll be others to walk with. I did the same thing with my older daughter-we walked to elementary school together, and then she "fired" me the second day of sixth grade (the first day she needed my help with all the school supplies). Even if there aren't as many kids the same age as my younger daughter, at least she'll have her older sister to walk with (if my older daughter is agreeable; ever since she hit 13 it's been like the Hatfields and the McCoys in our house due to the 5-year age difference!).

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Maureen G
Maureen G1 years ago

Fortunately ...walking to school was never an issue. When I was young my mother drove me as it was far too far to walk and when I was older I went to boarding school.

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Margie F
Margie FOURIE1 years ago

Well if they walk in groups I think it is fine.

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Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen1 years ago

Thank you

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Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen1 years ago

Thank you

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heather g
heather g1 years ago

The school children I see every day always walk in groups.

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Sheila D
Sheila D1 years ago

Thanks for the information.

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Toni W
Toni W1 years ago

TYFS

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Toni W
Toni W1 years ago

Very informative reading - TYFS

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