BY LISA RAPAPORT
(Reuters Health – Children may cut things closer than their parents realize when it comes to guessing how far cars are from an intersection or how long it takes to safely reach the other side, a small study suggests.
Using virtual reality, researchers tested how often kids might walk into oncoming traffic in real life. The results show that “parents may be over-estimating how careful their children are” and missing opportunities to teach kids safer habits, study author Dr. Barbara Morrongiello, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, said in an email.
Morrongiello and co-author Michael Corbett recruited 139 children and their parents to participate in the virtual street-crossing experiment in Guelph, a suburban community about 45 minutes from Toronto.
Study participants wore headsets outfitted with a 3-D display and motion sensors to detect every real step they took into virtual streets. Participants stood at an intersection on a virtual two-way street with sidewalks, enhanced by traffic sounds that got louder as cars approached.
After a trial run for the children to practice using the equipment, the researchers asked kids to cross the virtual street when they thought traffic conditions were safe.
Researchers measured how many seconds the virtual cars were from hitting kids when they crossed the street. Then, they put parents in the same situation and asked them when they thought their kids would attempt to cross.
Parents generally expected their kids not to cross the street when an oncoming car was less than 4 seconds away, while the children crossed into traffic with tighter gaps of about 3 seconds, the study found.
Children were hit by virtual cars about six percent of the time.
Younger kids, aged 7 to 9, typically walked into traffic when an approaching car was about 2.95 seconds away, while their parents generally thought the children would allow for a gap of 4.19 seconds.
Older children, aged 10 to 12, on average allowed for a 3.03 second gap, while their parents thought they would let 3.85 seconds pass.
It’s possible that these suburban kids aren’t as savvy about traffic as their urban counterparts, and it’s also possible that the children took more risks in the virtual world than they would in real life, the authors acknowledge in the journal Injury Prevention.
But the findings still reveal a real danger, Dr. Frederick Rivara, vice chair of pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle, said in an email.
“Parents need to be realistic about their children’s developmental level,” said Rivara, who wasn’t involved in the study. “I call it the Lake Wobegon effect – all parents think their kids are above average, when of course, most kids are average. The issue with pedestrian safety is that an error here can result in the child being seriously injured.”
To keep kids safe, parents need to start by setting a good example, David Schwebel, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in an email. “Children learn a lot just by watching, and if parents behave in dangerous ways, their children are likely to do so also.”
Pedestrian safety lessons can start at any age, and it’s especially crucial to begin early when children live in cities where they will be exposed to busy intersections from a very young age, said Schwebel, who wasn’t involved in the study.
For toddlers, parents can talk about what safety choices they make each time they cross the street, from looking both ways to making eye contact with drivers, said Jodie Plumert, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
By the time children are 4 or 5 years old, it’s smart for parents to start letting children make the decision about when it’s safe to cross street, starting of course with residential streets with light traffic before trying busy intersections, said Plumert, who wasn’t involved in the study. This lets parents gently correct bad choices so kids can fine-tune their instincts about when it’s safe to cross.
“I’m a big fan of talking to kids about why they need to follow particular rules or procedures for crossing safely,” Plumert said by email. “As soon as kids start walking across streets with their parents, parents can start teaching street safety to them.”