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Road Safety: What do Children Want?

posted this in Childhood, Cycling, Health, Playing Out, Policy, Traffic on 21/11/2017

If fat is a feminist issue, road safety is a children’s rights issue (ok, it’s not as snappy but you get the idea), so we are wading in. However, we wade with care; as Professor John Adams said, “Road safety is not rocket science – it’s much more complicated”. With that in mind, we want to share a few thoughts on the links between road safety and children’s freedom – and (radically!) to share what children themselves have to say about it.

The Sad Reality

Road Safety Week 2017

It is heartening that Brake, the charity behind Road Safety Week, have chosen to focus this year’s campaign on ‘normal’ driver behaviour, with the slogan “Slow Down: Save Lives”. As they say, “…if something unexpected happens on the road ahead – such as a child stepping out from between parked cars – it is a driver’s speed that will determine whether they can stop in time and, if they can’t stop, how hard they will hit”. Obvs, innit.

The problem with ‘road safety’

But, compared to ‘traditional’ Road Safety campaigns, this is groundbreaking stuff. The likes of the Tufty Club, Green Cross Code and even the loveable ‘Hedgehogs’ campaign, whilst cute and well intentioned, have all pretty much told children that roads are now for cars and they must learn to navigate them safely or stay off them altogether.

On one level, the tactic has worked. Fewer children are now killed on the roads than when cars first started hurtling along our residential streets (14,000 killed 1927-37). But this cannot be hailed a success. Despite the fall in numbers, children in this country (especially those living in poorer areas) are still being knocked down by cars on the streets where they live. The last government report says that in 2015, 1,561 children (0-15) were killed or seriously injured whilst on foot (i.e. walking or playing) or on bikes (i.e. cycling or playing). This is not just a number – these are individual children. This is not ok. This is not to be celebrated.

Secondly, these gruesomely ‘positive’ statistics have come at a very high price: the loss of children’s freedom. One of the less cuddly government campaigns of the 1980s depicted a child stepping off a pavement with the words, “One False Move and You’re Dead” and in 1991, Professor Mayer Hillman co-opted these words for his seminal work linking increased traffic danger and child-focussed (victim-blaming?) ‘road safety’ campaigns to the drastic reduction in children’s independence over one generation. We now know that this loss of freedom is serious: it has already contributed to a decline in children’s health and happiness and we are probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Parents should not have to choose between their children’s freedom (and health and happiness) and their safety.

A vicious cycle

Because of parents’ very reasonable fear, children are not out and about as much, so car drivers have even less reason to consider them, making roads even more unsafe and hostile. There is no longer a sharing of the space outside our front doors – long gone for most children are the days of just shouting “car” and moving their game out of the way. We have now all pretty much just adapted our lives to the new reality: roads are for cars, not children.

A way forward?

However, it’s not all doom and gloom! Brake’s messaging reflects a wider shift in road safety thinking towards actually making roads safer, rather than changing children’s behaviour. Not everyone is there yet (see the government’s most recent campaigned aimed at children) but the good news is that we don’t have to meekly accept the status quo.

The streets where we live are our space and we can collectively decide how we want to use them. Regular ‘playing out’ sessions are one way for parents to push back and give children both freedom and safety – whilst also reminding us that streets are for everyone. Plenty of communities have campaigned for slower speeds too, or even made ‘DIY’ changes to make their streets safer and more liveable. Much more needs to happen, especially at a policy level, but it’s a start.

Children call for change

Now children from Room13 Hareclive, on the outskirts of Bristol, have turned traditional road safety campaigning on its head. Instead of adults telling children what they must do to avoid being run over, these children have created a funny, poignant film (above) telling adults about the change they want to see – and be part of making happen. Please watch it and share. Come on, let’s change things!

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