Chart: Biggest Threat to Schoolchildren? Cars

As New York City's 1.1 million schoolchildren amble to the first week of classes on sidewalks and subway platforms, the biggest danger they'll face isn't bullies or muggers but swift-moving traffic. A WNYC examination of traffic safety data reveals a few ways that kids are different from adults when it comes to pedestrian hazards. 

About 1,800 kids are hit by cars and trucks in New York City each year according to state Department of Motor Vehicle data.

"In large cities like New York City, clearly the most important danger to children walking to school are motor vehicles, cars," said Charles DiMaggio an Associate Professor at Columbia University who studies public health. "Kids really are the most unpredictable pedestrians," he said, "which puts the responsibility for their safety much more squarely on the shoulders of adults and drivers."

Although traffic fatalities are down more than a third since 2001, car crashes still kill more people than guns do in NYC.

WNYC looked for patterns in all the traffic crashes that injured a child in 2009, 2010, 2011, and from January of 2012 to April 2012, the most recent data available.

What we found is that patterns of pedestrian injuries to children have a few key distinctions from the way adults tend to be injured and in ways that point to some safety steps for parents and policy makers. 

One difference is timing. Though understandable, the difference is still stark: Children between the ages of five and 17 tend to get hit by cars most often in the hours they are walking to and from school — 6:30 - 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 - 4:30 p.m. on weekdays from September through June. School age children make up nearly a third of all the pedestrian accidents during that time period. By contrast, adults are hit most often in the early evening, from 5 to 8 p.m. An earlier NYC Department of Transportation pedestrian safety report using 2009 statistics found the most crashes overall happen around dusk

Within those times right before and after school, kids injured in traffic are just more likely to be hit while not following the pedestrian crossing signals than adults. While just nine percent of adults who were hit and injured during these times of day were in a crosswalk but against the signal, that percentage doubles for children to nearly 20 percent. A greater percentage of kids who are hit, get hit mid-block.  

"There's a common type of injury called a dart and dash injury where kids come out quickly from between two parked cars and drivers don’t have a chance to see them," DiMaggio said. Emerging from behind parked cars accounted for seven percent of injuries to children, but just about 3.5 percent for adults.

One reason kids are more at risk when crossing against the light is that smaller kids are harder to see, but another is psychology. Kids themselves just aren't as good as adults at seeing speeding cars. A psychological study found that perception of fast moving objects like an oncoming car, is a skill that increases with age through childhood, and what's more, kids are far less likely to notice cars if they are approaching in peripheral vision, exactly the scenario when crossing a street. 

In one area we examined, children are not any different than adults. That is trucks. Kids are no more likely to be hit and injured by a truck than an adult is during the times when kids are walking to and from school. 

All of this adds up to an argument for protecting children on their way to school through a mix of education and policy, not just telling kids to look both ways. Parents and crossing guards can look out for children and teach them to follow traffic rules, but enforcement against speeding and redesigning intersections can also have a dramatic impact. 

The federal program Safe Routes to School paid for a suite of safety programs near around 100 NYC schools resulting in a 44 percent drop in injuries to school kids during these to-and-from-school time periods at the schools where interventions were completed. There were no changes in injury rates where the interventions didn't happen, so it was a pretty strong case that the program worked. Some of the improvements involved teaching kids about safety, but also repainting crosswalks, adding lighting or new signage patterns all the way up to expensive street redesigns like widening sidewalks, speed bumps and adding bike lanes or other methods of slowing down speeding cars.

The program had its funding cut in the most recent round of federal budgeting. There are roughly 1,800 schools in NYC in about 1,200 buildings.

"The good news is that these crashes are preventable, and we know how to prevent them," said Juan Martinez of the safety group,Transportation Alternatives. Police need to pay more attention to speeding and cars that don't yield to pedestrians, he said. And the city can be even more aggressive about making crosswalks clearer and pedestrian-friendly. "We have only redesigned a tiny portion of our streets with safety in mind... Our City's progress has been great, but it's time to pick up the pace." 

Many residents would say the Bloomberg administration has been aggressive at reshaping streets. On a local level, "there are hundreds if not thousands of intersections near schools that have been improved... in the last five years", said Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC's Transportation Commissioner. Those weren't specifically school-related redesigns, but she said: "All of our projects take into account seniors and schoolchildren."

This week though, she's focused on speeding, and NYC's latest safety tool: cameras. "Too many streets by schools are used as racetracks by motorists," said Sadik-Khan. "We're throwing the book at speeders with the city's first ever use of safety cameras at 20 locations," she said. The city has some red light cameras already, but none that check speed, violators get a $50 ticket in the mail. The cameras will move around among intersections near 100 schools with high rates of nearby speeding. 

Speeding is an important scourge against kids as well. If a pedestrian is hit by a speeding car going 40 m.p.h. there's a 70 percent chance they will be killed but at the city speed limit of 30 m.p.h., there's an 80 percent chance that the pedestrian would live. 

This is one reason safety advocates have long called on the police to undertake more speeding enforcement. Sadik-Khan said that there is no specific plan to increase for police to change enforcement methods to go along with the new cameras, but the cameras will allow the city "to expand the enforcement that the PD has done a good job on."