Wrong side of the road

Children from poor families are paying the price for
Britain’s overcrowded roads. Can local initiatives make any
difference, asks Sarah Wellard.

Britain is probably the safest country in western Europe to be a
motorist or car passenger – proportionately fewer people die on our
roads than anywhere else. But when it comes to the risk of child
pedestrians being killed or knocked down, we do less well. Only
four of our European partners have a worse record on child
pedestrian safety. And less well off children are bearing the brunt
of the risk. They are five times as likely as their more affluent
peers to be killed or injured by traffic while out walking or
playing, despite or perhaps because only half as many of their
parents own cars.

Ian Roberts, professor of public health at the London School of
Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says that this steep social class
gradient is partly explained by where poorer children usually live
– near busy roads rather than in leafy suburbs. It’s also
about resources – poorer children are less likely to have safe
places to play and their parents are less likely to have cars. He
explains: “Poor kids walk much more than rich kids, who tend to
spend a lot of time in the car. Poorer kids are exposed to busier
streets with higher volumes of traffic. If you have to cross a main
road on a regular basis you’re more at risk.”

Roberts has been studying traffic and child pedestrian safety in
the inner London borough of Camden. “If you look at Camden, you
find low levels of car ownership and high levels of traffic,” he
says. “You’ve got masses of through traffic that
doesn’t emanate from Camden and doesn’t contribute to
the local economy. The benefits and drawbacks of car travel fall on
different groups.”

This is confirmed by research from the Institute for Public
Policy Research (IPPR). Tony Grayling, associate director says: “We
looked at how measures of area deprivation are linked with accident
risk across the whole of England. We found that children living in
the poorest 10 per cent of neighbourhoods were three times as
likely as those in the richest wards to be victims of pedestrian
accidents.” The IPPR analysis indicates that the increased risk is
partly to do with factors in the built environment – traffic speed
and volume for example – but also to do with behavioural factors,
like whether children play out unsupervised or walk to school.

As Grayling observes, the solution to reducing child accidents
depends on your political viewpoint. One view is that it is
parents’ responsibility to protect their children from
traffic danger, and that they shouldn’t be out on their own.
An alternative view is that we should place the onus on drivers to
reduce their speed and impose more restrictions on cars.

There are signs that the pendulum is beginning to swing in the
direction of more controls on motorists. Improving road safety and
tackling the disproportionate number of accidents in deprived areas
is now an official public service agreement target. Local
authorities are introducing 20 mph zones in many residential areas,
reinforced by speed reduction measures like road humps and
narrowing. According to the IPPR research, local authorities are
tending to place these in poorer areas. However, Grayling adds that
councils also respond to public demand. “The articulate middle
classes are less likely to have a strong case but more likely to
present it,” he says.

A handful of local authorities are piloting a more radical
approach. Known as “home zones” and based on successful initiatives
in Germany and the Netherlands, the idea is to change the way
streets are designed and used to give priority to pedestrians and
cyclists, including children. The zones aim to turn residential
streets into public spaces, increasing opportunities for children
to play and promoting a sense of community as well as cutting
traffic volumes and speeds (see panel right).

The Department for Education’s big idea for getting people
to abandon the school run – which itself adds about 20 per cent to
term-time traffic – is to encourage schools to draw up travel
plans. Best-practice guidelines recommend that plans should include
measures to improve children’s fitness, reduce congestion and
casualties and increase use of public transport. All very laudable,
except that it doesn’t work. Research conducted by the London
School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine shows that even where
schools have a travel co-ordinator to work with parents, school
travel plans do nothing to reduce parents’ fears or to
increase the numbers of children walking or cycling to school.

Kerbcraft is another government-backed scheme, which involves
teaching children pedestrian skills. In Walsall, one of 37 councils
to have been awarded government funding, co-ordinators have been
appointed to recruit volunteers to work with five to seven year
olds in 10 primary schools.

No one disagrees that teaching children about road safety is a
good idea. But you might well ask how much impact measures aimed at
changing children’s behaviour will have on reducing
accidents. As the Child Accident Prevention Trust points out,
children are easily distracted and make unpredictable pedestrians.
Traffic-coping skills are complex and children cannot accurately
judge speed and distance until they are around 11. And research
carried out by the Department of Psychology at the University of
Warwick found that five to nine year olds struggle to apply in real
life traffic situations what they learn in road safety lessons.

Politicians are reluctant to grasp the nettle and tackle the
biggest risk factor of all: traffic volume. Aside from improving
public transport, the main way to cut traffic is to increase the
marginal cost of motoring. In other words, making it more expensive
to drive those extra few miles, so that people use their cars less.
We all remember what happened when the government tried to do this
through increasing the tax on petrol. The opposition to congestion
charging in central London is another example. Roberts says out
that even Labour MPs have spoken out against the initiative. “The
idea that people who drive into London are poor is complete
nonsense. Everybody gets bought off by the transport lobby.”

Richard Bourne, social inclusion co-ordinator for Transport 2000
takes a similar view. “At local authority level there is a shift in
favour of better pedestrian protection,” he says. “But at the level
of national transport policy there is no big shift. The government
doesn’t dare antagonise motorists and won’t say that
the only policy which will succeed is one that persuades people to
use cars less.”

Parents who can afford it take their children by car. From their
point of view it makes perfect sense – their children are safer and
it’s more convenient. But for other people’s children
it just adds to the risk. If we really want to break the vicious
circle, we’ve all got to start driving less. How about a
“walk to Westminster” week for starters?

See website
www.homezones.org  for
further information

In the zone

Morice Town Home Zone in Plymouth was completed last year. It
covers around 1.5 miles of road and includes 155 terraced houses
and 253 flats, as well as a junior school, several pubs and other
public buildings. Changes to the built environment include raising
the road to the same level as the pavement, traffic calming
measures and gateways marking entrances to the zone, play
facilities and tree-planting. The scheme cost £1.5m and was
funded jointly by the local council, single regeneration budget and
the government.

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