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About SickKids

April 17, 2014

Keep fit and walk to school: new research shows walking to school is generally safe for children

By Rebecca Milec

Walking to school may be the easiest and most important step to the lifelong health benefits of regular exercise. On the other hand, pedestrian road-traffic injury is the leading single cause of death for school-age children in many countries, so safety is critical. A new study from The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) has found that walking to school in Toronto is relatively safe and children are safer when there are fewer road crossings and in areas where more families live. The study was published in the April 7 online edition of Pediatrics.

“We want children to walk to school; it promotes good health and quality of life,” says Dr. Andrew Howard, Principal Investigator of the study, and Senior Scientist in Child Health Evaluative Sciences at SickKids. “Promoting walking would be problematic if it led to more child pedestrian injuries; however this study says that walking can be safe.  Regardless of your local built environment, it is always important to be aware of your surroundings when walking to school.”

Howard and co-authors looked at whether or not the built environment, which is the man-made surroundings in which people live and work, impact a child’s probability of being injured by a vehicle while walking to school. They analyzed police-reported collisions from 2002 to 2011 with children between four and 12 years old that occurred within school boundaries, and specifically looked at the features of the built environment around these collision sites, such as the number of traffic lights, one-way streets, school crossing guards and/or speed limits, that may have been associated with the collision.

Collisions were less frequent in areas with more multi-family dwellings, such as apartment buildings. Collisions were more frequent in areas with design features associated with intersections and road crossings – for example traffic lights, traffic-calming measure, and school crossing guards. Howard explains that this does not necessarily mean these features cause collisions, but instead may signify that safety measures were put in more dangerous areas.

When researchers accounted for the effect of the built environment, there was no longer an association between walking to school and pedestrian collisions. This suggests that modification to the environment such as minimizing road crossings, reducing speed and volume of traffic near schools and emphasizing road crossing controls can help make walking to school safer for children.

“The risks that come with walking to school should not outweigh the benefits that children gain from extra physical activity,” says Linda Rothman, Child Health Evaluative Sciences Trainee at SickKids. “Some areas in Toronto are safer than others, but overall, we recommend that children get outside and walk.”