At what age do you think kids can cross a street safely: Eight? 10? 12?
Actually, it's 14. Until that age, research suggests, kids can’t truly be trusted crossing a busy road on their own. It takes kids that long to develop the combination of motor skills and perceptual judgment they need for this task.
When you think about it, it makes sense. Crossing a street requires a complex set of skills. First, kids need to determine where to cross—at a corner or crosswalk. They need to know where and how to look for traffic. Also, children need to make a good guess as to when an oncoming car might reach the intersection (that’s the perceptual judgment researchers studied). They need the patience to wait for an appropriate, safe time to cross, when to step off the curb (the motor skill).
Fortunately, you don’t have to hold your child’s hand forever. You can—and should—start to teach pedestrian safety to kids from an early age. Be a role model by always crossing at corners, staying off your phone, and waiting for the light to change (even if no cars are coming). You also can begin to talk kids through the process: “We need to wait to cross; that car is too close,” and, “The light changed. We can cross now.”
By about age 10, most kids can take walks and cross streets on their own as long as they have access to crosswalks and traffic signals to help them. They should know and follow these basic pedestrian safety rules from Safe Kids Worldwide:
- Always look left, then right, then left again for oncoming cars, and keep looking as you cross.
- Put your phone or iPod and headphones away when crossing streets to minimize distractions.
- Make eye contact with drivers who are stopped and waiting for you to cross. This helps confirm that they’ve seen you.
- Walk on sidewalks and cross only at corners or crosswalks. Don’t run across streets, and never cross mid-block, especially if there are parked cars on the street. That makes it much harder for drivers to see you and for you to see them. If you dart out from behind a parked car, a moving one might not see you in time to stop.
- If there is no sidewalk, walk on the left side of the street (facing traffic).
Safety While Biking
Your community may have different rules about this, so check it out, but ideally kids should bike on sidewalks or off-road bike paths until they are at least 10 years old and have better judgment about riding on the street in traffic.
On the street, bicycles are considered vehicles. That means they should stay on the right side of the street, with traffic, like a car—the opposite of what they’d do while walking. Bicyclists should stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, just as cars do. Teach your child how to look behind her if she is cycling in the street and she needs to move to the left while riding (say, to get around a parked car), and to be mindful of car doors being opened.
No matter where she is biking, make sure your child knows important bike-safety rules (also from Safe Kids):
- Always, always, always wear a helmet, and make sure it fits well. This applies to adults, too!
- Know and respect traffic signals, like stop signs and traffic lights. On sidewalks, look out for vehicles in driveways—there is always a risk that they will back out across the sidewalk.
- Know and use hand signals for turning left and right. Left is holding your left arm out straight, parallel to the ground; for right, bend at the elbow so your arm makes a 90-degree angle.
- As you would when on foot, cross streets at corners, and make eye contact with nearby drivers before crossing.
Safety While Skating and Scootering
In addition to the risks kids face from traffic, those who use scooters, skateboards, or in-line skates also have the potential of falling, so they need safety rules, too. They should stick to sidewalks and specially designated paved trails or skate parks, and follow pedestrian safety rules, along with these:
- Wear a properly fitted helmet, as well as knee and elbow pads. Mouth and wrist guards are also helpful, especially for beginners.
- In winter, watch out for patches of ice and snow; in spring or fall, be on the lookout for slippery, wet leaves.
- Check equipment before riding, every time. Is anything cracked, loose, or broken? Get it fixed before using it.
Know how to fall—practice on grass or foam mats. Get low as you lose balance, and try to land on your bottom instead of your hands, wrists, or knees.