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Is Your Child's School Commute Safe?

By , Hillary Copsey
Walking to school can be a great way for kids to get some exercise and socialize with friends out in the fresh air. It helps get their heads straight for the school day and allows them to decompress on the way home after long hours behind a desk.
But for parents, it's hard to know when a child is old enough to walk alone safely.
The school district in which I live only offers busing for students who live more than two miles from school. My soon-to-be kindergartener is very active--he plays tee ball and has run kids' races--but I'm not sure he'd be able to walk four miles daily. I'm also fairly certain I'm not willing to ask him to, considering the lack of sidewalks in our neighborhood and on the couple of larger roads he would have to cross to get to school. For us, age 5 is too young. But growing up in a very small town, I had friends who lived on the same street as our elementary school who, even as kindergarteners, made the short walk home alone every day along the tree-shaded sidewalks. Every situation is different.
In a 2011 American Academy of Pediatrics study of students age 6 to 16, it was found that the use of ''active transportation'' (walking or biking) peaked around age 10. That sounds about right to me. In late elementary school, students are old enough to know and follow basic traffic laws and safety rules. They are also young enough to not yet need to be ferried regularly to and from extracurricular activities such as sports practices or music lessons.
When you're deciding if your child can walk alone to school, consider his ability to follow directions and solve problems--even when no one is watching. Will he know what to do if his normal route is blocked? Does he always, always remember to look both ways before he crosses the street? Your child's teacher and/or doctor might help you determine this. You also might check to see what other parents are allowing their same-age children to do. Despite the opportunity for horseplay, students walking in a group can be safer since the school is more likely to post crossing guards on well-traveled paths.
Walk to School Day, a one-day event to raise awareness for the need for walkable communities, is Oct. 3, 2012. The event was first organized in 1997 by the Partnership for a Walkable America and became an international campaign in 2000. Its website,, offers a comprehensive list of safety tips for children and parents planning walking routes to school.
The organization encourages you to look for routes where crossing guards are posted, find paths that minimize the number of times a child needs to cross a road, and keep students on lightly traveled roads, ideally on a sidewalk. Check to make sure there aren't loose dogs or other hazards on the route. Your local police department can help you find information about criminal activity in an area, as well as offer general safety tips and advice specific to your area.
I would also encourage you to keep an eye on your local news. Part of the reason I'm uncomfortable with my child walking to school until he's older is because, in the eight years we've lived here, at least half a dozen students have been clipped by car mirrors or even fatally hit while walking to school or waiting for a bus on dark, sidewalk-less streets. Working at our local newspaper, I've had to report on these accidents. Admittedly, it's made me a bit wary to send my kid off hiking through our streets. But I'd rather know about these accidents than assume my sprawling suburban city is just like the tiny town in which I was raised.
If your child is walking to school--especially when the mornings are dark--make sure he or she is wearing light-colored, reflective clothing. Flashing backpack lights also aren't a bad idea. And above all, teach your kids basic safety rules so that they'll know what to do when you're not there to help them navigate the streets and sidewalks.
How do your kids get to school? If they walk, are you concerned about letting them go by themselves?