Chart: Biggest Threat to Schoolchildren? Cars

A WNYC analysis of traffic safety risks

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 04:00 AM


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." 


Comments [8]

Chang from NYC

Isn't it frustrating that you have to do all that ABC instruction? What are being taught in schools? Actually it's not just problem of children but of average adults in NYC. Just today I had to warn one guy to watch his back. He was standing on the road near curb talking to his friend with his back towards approaching cars. He thinks he is visible but so many can go wrong even though driver is watching his back. 1> Driver could have medical condition like heart attack or black out and lose control. 2> driver could be drunk or drowsy. 3> Car can have mechanical problems like brake failure, steering problem, blown out tire especially on wet or icy surface. 4> Car could get swiped by other car and pushed over. I don't like to scare people but cars can be potential weapon which can turn life to instant death. Cars weigh tons and with 30mph squared, MCsquared equals massive energy, not that I know exactly. About 35,000 death a year in US is stats. You can blame the cars but as a pedestrian, you should be more defensive and alert, DEFINITELY STOP TEXTING WHILE CROSSING, because drivers may be texting too and senseless tragedy could be avoided. As a NYC driver, I find average pedestrians in NYC very very not savvy when it comes to crossing. Maybe because most are not driving but potential is there to learn. CitiWide crossing game app may help and I think it's well worth it.

Dec. 07 2013 09:27 PM
TOM from Brooklyn

Better characterization of risk is kids not respecting rules of the road, parental/adult instruction or acquired common sense. Cars are simply the instrument of their injury.

Sep. 11 2013 01:47 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

No surprises here as to cause and possible mitigation.

As a TA volunteer in the early aughts, many of us worked tirelessly on crossing issues in and outside of Central Park and Prospect Park (with hundreds of thousands of signatures, we still couldn't get cars out of the park at key hours of interaction for all ages--particularly children; thanks Bloomberg and DOT!), I can only recall then-DOT Chair Irish Weinshall, declaring that her job with the DOT was to "move traffic as quickly as possible" through Manhattan. With more refinement of one-way and no turning onto purple through-streets, car and truck speeds went up, along with fatalities. After her turn at the DOT, Weinshall helped her Prospect Park West neighbors try to kill a bicycle lane alongside the Park on a three-lane, one-way street. Glad Shumer's keeping her at home more these days.

When are we going to prioritize pedestrian safety over vehicular expedience? When, as Parent from Manhattan says, the police union gives it up? As long as we welcome all drivers into our neighborhoods with unchecked speed and other behaviors, and only spend the majority of street infrastructure dollars on making it easier for them to move, this unfortunate trend will not reverse.

Parents - TransAlt isn't just for cyclists; it's advocacy for pedestrians, too. Get involved!

Sep. 10 2013 09:53 PM
brooklyn_MOM from Brooklyn

Thanks for this reminder (& some good stats in support)! Last night I told my 8 & 11 year olds that the #1 killer for children are car accidents. While I hate, Hate, HATE being a fear monger - I want them to understand how deadly cars can be. No Jaywalking, wait 10 seconds after the light changes, LOOK EVEN when you have the light & always stand back at least 3 feet from the corners. Watch those turning cars & consider that most 'rush hour drivers only care about is getting to work on time & are well "rushing!" As a parent I ensure that I wait for the 'walking man' and set a responsible example (& I will chastise children other than my own who I feel put themselves in danger - they think I am nuts when I say "you are all my children" but that is the way it should be IMO)

Can you PLEASE cover Texting / Talking and driving next?

Sep. 10 2013 04:28 PM
Juliana Dubovsky from Astoria

Thank you so much for this story. As a resident (and a TA volunteer) working on a traffic calming campaign for 21st street in Astoria, used as a major speedway from the Queensboro to the Triboro, speed cameras and traffic enforcement would be a huge help to the many schools located along this corridor. Re-designing these streets for the benefit of all users and mobilities - as complete streets - should be as much a budget priority for the DOT as enforcement for the NYPD. Thanks for the story - we'll be sure to advocate for these cameras to the community board!

Sep. 10 2013 01:18 PM
Lou Rubin from New York

Safety is a personal choice each of us make regardless of which mode of transportation we use. Here are some thoughts on how we need to act as individuals to be safer:

Sep. 10 2013 11:52 AM
bob previdi

What a stark difference from the image of safety portrayed by nearly every car company when they advertise their product.
Society has had its opinions severely warped into thinking that cars are "safe".
There are only a few advocates for a pedestrian way of life and finally we've turned the tide and are making our streets safe for walking again. It is just going to take time to influence public opinion that this still is a serious issue.

Sep. 10 2013 09:35 AM
Parent from Manhattan

How pathetic.
20 schools will get cameras, out of the 100s of New York schools. It's not like camera are an exotic new technology.
It's all because some state legislators (e.g. Martin Golden), beholden to the police union, refuse to permit NYC to install more cameras (Bloomberg has been pushing for the cameras for some time - see Apparently, the nutsos who lead the union believe that there will be less need for cops if there are more cameras (or maybe they are worried that their members will be caught on camera driving). All at the expense of innocent children.

Sep. 06 2013 07:43 AM

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