How old should a child be before crossing the road on their own?

A study has revealed a child's visual judgment and motor skills keep on developing until they're 14 - so it's vital to ensure your child knows the safety rules when it comes to crossing the road...

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A 2017 study carried out by psychologists at Iowa University in the US has revealed that children up to the age of 14 aren’t able to cross roads as safely as adults because their visual judgement and motor skills are still developing.

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The research used a simulated traffic environment, and showed that accident rates can be around 8% among 6 year olds, and 2% among 12 year olds – and it was only when children reached young adolescence that they can cross with no incidents at all.

“Some people think younger children may be able to perform like adults when crossing the street,” says Professor Jodie Plumert.

“Our study shows that’s not necessarily the case on busy roads where traffic doesn’t stop.”

The professor found young children misjudged the gaps between traffic when trying to cross, in a simulated 3D experiment, which caused accidents, as well as keenness from younger children to cross the road.

Perceptual ability (a child’s ability to judge how fast cars were going and gaps between cars) and motor skills (how quickly a child stepped onto the road to cross after a car had passed) were big factors in the accidents.

So advice is to teach children to be patient and to choose to cross in wider traffic gaps than an adult would.

Safety on the roads

Of course, we know it’s not realistic that you’ll still be crossing roads with your child when they’re 14 – so if your child walks to nursery or school, road safety is an essential thing for you to teach them.

The phrase ‘stop, look, listen’ has been drummed into generations of children, but there’s actually far more to crossing the road than just that.

In fact, your child needs to perform 70 different mental processes to cross the road safely. Among many other things, children have to make judgments about the acceleration and deceleration of traffic, judge distance and speed, work out the time available to cross and, crucially, be able to make quick decisions and act on them. 

In short, children have to have their wits about them and most children won’t begin to have all these skills until they’re about 7 or 8 years old.

Even then, we all know how easily children are distracted. So we’ve put together a guide to help you teach your child about road safety and walking to school.

How to teach road safety to your child

  • Never let children under 8 go out alone or cross the road by themselves.
  • Always ensure younger children walk on your ‘inside’ away from the kerb.
  • Never let her run ahead – there may be hidden entrances or gateways.
  • Make sure she knows the curb is the edge of the pavement and that she should always stop at the kerb.
  • Explain what traffic is, that the road is for traffic and the pavement is for people.
  • Involve your child in the decision-making processes and ask her to help you decide when to cross the road.
  • Make sure she understands ‘stop’ and ‘go’, and the symbols for each at pelican crossings.
  • Make sure she understands zebra crossings and that she must make sure all the traffic has come to a stop before starting to cross.
  • Always use crossings with your child and never jay walk.
  • Start up a ‘walking school bus’ in your area where parents volunteer to pick up children at appointed ‘bus stops’ and take them safely to school on foot.

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