By Natalie Draisin
Director, North American Office and United Nations Representative
As the school year approaches, parents across the nation are planning schedules, buying new shoes, and experiencing age-old anxieties that come with children growing up too fast. Amidst these preparations, we sometimes forget about the actual journey to school, and important safety issues to consider along the way.
Ensuring a safe journey to school must become a paramount concern for parents and local decision makers. The impact of safe walking and biking to school goes far beyond the convenience of arriving at the school gates; it has far-reaching effects on health, well-being, and future.
The health and environmental benefits of safe walking and cycling to school are just the start. Regular physical activity is crucial for the development of healthy children both physically and mentally. By actively commuting to school, children engage in exercise that helps prevent obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses. Walking or cycling to school provides an opportunity for children to socialize, fostering a sense of community and belonging. It helps children develop independence and confidence as they navigate the world with a sense of responsibility and awareness. Additionally, reducing reliance on private vehicles for school commutes helps reduce carbon emissions, supporting efforts to combat climate change.
That’s a lot of positives, but there are important and very real safety concerns for parents and communities to balance as well.
Alarming statistics reveal that the United States has one of the worst records on road deaths among its high-income peers. Pedestrian deaths in the U.S. rose a troubling 77 percent between 2010 and 2021, according to the latest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics. The rise in road fatalities involving children signals a demand for safer road infrastructure and reduced speeds near schools. Local decision makers, too, must recognize the urgency of adopting measures to protect our children.
So how do individuals and communities make the change? Let’s learn from what’s working and share youth travel safety successes in real American cities and towns. Recent guidelines from Vision Zero for Youth highlight the importance of engaging young minds in the conversation about road safety and fostering active participation from both parents and local communities. The Vision Zero for Youth Leadership awards highlight best practices that are reshaping streets to protect kids. A notable example of local politics driving policy is Sammy’s Law, a campaign aimed to protect children by implementing lower speed limits around schools and other vulnerable areas in New York City. Initiatives like Sammy’s Law demonstrate the power of localized efforts to address road safety and prioritize the lives of young pedestrians and cyclists.
To achieve real progress, we must focus on reducing vehicle speeds and improving road infrastructure especially around places we know kids and families are walking and cycling. Speed is a key determinant in fatalities on roads, and by lowering speed limits near schools, we create a safer environment for our children to travel. Furthermore, the implementation of crosswalks, traffic-calming measures, and well-maintained bike lanes can significantly reduce the risk of crashes.
Another key component: engaging with the community, particularly youth, is vital to creating lasting change. Vision Zero for Youth’s guidelines emphasize the importance of involving young people in decision-making processes related to road safety. By empowering our youth, we cultivate responsible road users who understand the value of safe journeys and advocate for change in their communities. Ultimately, a city that protects children is a city that protects everyone. Focus on safe walking and cycling for youth, particularly by targeting historically underserved communities, symbolizes a critical turning point in striving for equity in mobility in our country.
Each child has a fundamental right to safe journeys to school. This right is the foundation of their health, well-being, and future. The guidelines from Vision Zero for Youth provide valuable insights and strategies to engage young minds in shaping safer transportation options. As we confront the grim reality of America’s record-breaking deaths on roads, we can no longer afford to overlook this urgent issue. Instead, by promoting active transportation, reducing vehicle speeds, and improving road infrastructure, we can create a safer environment and make safe walking and biking to school a reality for every child.
Natalie Draisin is the Director of the North American Office and the United Nations Representative for the FIA Foundation. She manages the Foundation’s grants in North America to achieve safe and sustainable mobility worldwide. At the UN, advocated for the inclusion of road safety in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and secured language prioritizing a safe and healthy journey to school for all children in the UN Habitat III New Urban Agenda.
For the Transportation Research Board, she serves as co-chair of the safety culture subcommittee and is a Board Member of the National Association of Women Highway Safety Leaders. Prior to joining the FIA Foundation, she worked with the WHO and National Transportation Safety Board. She has worked alongside Community Health Workers in Kenya, acted as a Leadership Fellow with the Pew Charitable Trusts, and cycled across the US to fundraise for cancer research. A Sommer Scholar, Natalie has an MPH/MBA from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and a BA in public health from Johns Hopkins University.
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