Safer school travel

A Q&A with Dr Maureen Owen

Research shows around four 12-14yr old students are injured on the school journey each week. How do they get injured?

Pedestrian and passenger casualty numbers are roughly equal in this age group, but almost 50% of pedestrian injuries happen as students begin to cross the road which suggests they're not using the basics of good road crossing - stop, look, listen and think.

Regardless of the age of the student, crossing the road is worth practicing.

More injuries occur whilst students are traveling home. Why?

Some reasons might include less focus after school - they're reviewing the day, what's up next, etc. They're probably tired and often carrying heavy bags and equipment, which can contribute to their tiredness or decreased mobility. Travelling with friends and MP3 players are added distractions.

Another contributing factor might be that students are dropped off at school in the mornings, but have to make their own way home.

Why are new high school students more likely to be injured than primary school ones?

Adult supervision is one of the greatest protective factors. Primary school students are much more likely to be accompanied by mum or dad to school. They also generally travel shorter distances and attend their ‘local' school, which often makes it more convenient for parents to walk or drive their children.

Parents assume that by the time students are at high school, they are able to lookout for themselves in traffic. But, the statistics show that's not the case. High school journeys are usually longer and more complex often involving more than one mode of transport.

What are some of the safety concerns that new high school students may encounter?

High schools tend to have bigger student populations and are often located on a main road - this means busy pedestrian traffic, cars dropping off and picking up and buses.

There is often a great deal of preparation for high school - uniform, books, new bags, orientation, but very little focus on the journey that needs to be made every day.

So what can parents do?

Parents can really make a difference, using the three safe travel steps below;

  • Step 1 Discuss each aspect of the journey and talk about how to manage the risks associated with each mode of travel
  • Step 2 Make the journey to school with your children - preferably more than once. You'll be in a better position to understand what those risks are. It's often a long time since you've walked or used public transport at school time. Roads are busier than ever and there are lots of distractions.
  • Step 3 Make sure children have a back up plan and know what to do if something goes wrong during the journey such as using a mobile phone, contacting a neighbour or going home via a different route. Don't wait until it happens. Plans help avoid risky behaviour such as running across the road to avoid missing the bus.

It is also very important that parents behave safely on the road - particularly when dropping off or picking up children. It's very tempting to pull into a school zone so children can hop out of the car close to school, but it does put everyone at risk.

Boys make up nearly 60% of casualties. What can parents do to ensure their boys travel safely to and from school?

Remind boys they're particularly vulnerable to road injury - and that it really does happen to anyone.

Almost all push bike casualties are boys and many are injured because they don't wear helmets. Insist they use a helmet (it's the law) and make sure their bikes are well maintained.

Getting up on time helps avoid the need for risky behaviour re missing the bus/train!

Review the three safe travel steps above every so often with your son

Walking to and from school is increasingly being proffered as an answer to the growing obesity epidemic. What should students watch out for when walking?

Walking between home and school is a great way to add some exercise to the day. However, students need to be aware that pedestrian injuries don't just happen on major roads, but on quiet local roads as well - where students often think they are at less risk.

Whilst students are told "always cross at the crossing", often they don't exist on local walks home. If a crossing is available, it is important to use with care, and just as much care is needed without one.

Many working parents cannot personally take their children to school, what advice can you give parents in this situation?

It's worth asking your school if they operate a buddy system and match up older and younger children who live close to one another. Alternatively parents can approach nearby families to discuss the possibilities of carpooling, a walking bus or traveling together on public transport.

If traveling with a young driver, remind them to always wear a seat belt and not distract the driver. They should always speak up if the driver, or others in the car behave unsafely.

What's the best contingency plan if something should go wrong?

A back up plan is vital - and the best one works no matter what goes wrong. Mobile phones are very effective because students can contact parents, friends or neighbours that maybe able to help - and let you know if they have been held up.

However, knowing an alternate route always helps - for example students might have to walk if they miss a bus - or walk part way and meet up with another bus route - or catch a bus and train instead.

It's a great idea to share lifts from time to time with other parents so that if you need to call on their help, you've already established contact.

Surely accidents just happen. What can parents really do?

We try to avoid the term accident as it implies that road crashes do ‘just happen'. In reality it's generally not the case and many incidents on the roads can be avoided if we recognise the risks and learn how to manage them.

We need a whole of community approach to road safety - it's not just about students learning how to keep safe - but also about all of us driving safely and looking out for one another.

Bullying on buses is a growing concern for many parents, what are some of the strategies to overcome bullying on public transport?

Many bus services are doing a lot to help overcome bullying - and schools can get involved too - but overcrowding and bullying are a serious problem.

Talk with your children about this, or any other concerns they have about their journey. They may be able to catch a different bus service for a while - the dynamics of peer relationships change very quickly. Students can also be encouraged to look out for one another.

Further hints and tips are available on Youthsafe's fact sheet ‘On the way to High School - Tips for Safer Travel' and on their website