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Kids struggle to safely cross busy streets

Children under a certain age don’t have the perceptual judgment and motor skills to cross a busy road consistently without putting themselves in danger, report researchers.

For the new study, children 6 to 14 years old participated in a realistic simulated environment and had to cross one lane of a busy road multiple times.

Children up to their early teenage years had difficulty consistently crossing the street safely, with accident rates as high as 8 percent with 6-year-olds. Only children who were 14 were able to navigate street crossing without incident. Children who were 12 mostly compensated for inferior road-crossing motor skills by choosing bigger gaps between cars.

“Some people think younger children may be able to perform like adults when crossing the street,” says Jodie Plumert, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Iowa. “Our study shows that’s not necessarily the case on busy roads where traffic doesn’t stop.”

For parents, that means taking extra precautions. Be aware that your child may struggle with identifying gaps in traffic large enough to cross safely. Young children also may not have developed the fine motor skills to step into the street the moment a car has passed, something adults have mastered. And, your child may allow eagerness to outweigh reason when judging the best time to cross a busy street.

“They get the pressure of not wanting to wait combined with these less-mature abilities,” says Plumert, corresponding author of the study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. “And that’s what makes it a risky situation.”

Distraction skews actions and perception differently

In 2014, there were 8,000 injuries and 207 fatalities involving motor vehicles and pedestrians age 14 and younger, according to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis.

For the study, researchers recruited children who were 6, 8, 10, 12, and 14 years old, as well as a control group of adults. Each participant faced a string of approaching virtual vehicles traveling 25 mph (considered a benchmark speed for a residential neighborhood) and then crossed a single lane of traffic (about nine feet wide). The time between vehicles ranged from two to five seconds. Each participant negotiated a road crossing 20 times, for about 2,000 total trips involving the age groups.

The crossings took place in an immersive, 3D interactive space. The simulated environment is “very compelling,” says first author Elizabeth O’Neal, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences. “We often had kids reach out and try to touch the cars.”

The finding show that 6-year-olds were struck by vehicles 8 percent of the time; 8-year-olds were struck 6 percent; 10-year-olds were struck 5 percent; and 12-year-olds were struck 2 percent. Children 14 and older had no accidents.

Children contend with two main variables when deciding whether it’s safe to cross a street.  The first involves perceptual ability, or how they judge the gap between a passing car and an oncoming vehicle, taking into account the oncoming car’s speed and distance from the crossing. Younger children, have more difficulty making consistently accurate perceptual decisions.

The second variable involves motor skills: How quickly do children time their step from the curb into the street after a car just passed? Younger children are incapable of timing that first step as precisely as adults, which in effect gave them less time to cross the street before the next car arrived.

“Most kids choose similar size gaps (between the passing car and oncoming vehicle) as adults,” O’Neal says, “but they’re not able to time their movement into traffic as well as adults can.”

Virtual reality trick shifts depth perception

Children as young as 6 crossed the street as quickly as adults, eliminating crossing speed as a possible cause for pedestrian–vehicle collisions.

Parents should teach their children to be patient and to encourage younger ones to choose gaps that are even larger than the gaps adults would choose for themselves, O’Neal says. Also, civic planners can help by identifying places where children are likely to cross streets and make sure those intersections have a pedestrian-crossing aid.

“If there are places where kids are highly likely to cross the road, because it’s the most efficient route to school, for example, and traffic doesn’t stop there, it would be wise to have crosswalks,” Plumert says.

The National Science Foundation funded the work.

Source: University of Iowa

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