Parents reluctant to let children walk to school because of traffic and 'stranger danger'
· by: Holly Ife
· From:Herald Sun
· October 23, 2012 12:00AM
CHAUFFEUR parents are stopping many children from walking because they fear they will injured in traffic or be exposed to strangers, new research has found.
But in trying to protect their kids, experts say parents are putting them at risk of obesity and associated health risks.
Research carried out by Deakin University School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences explored the reasons many parents choose to drive their children to school and to local destinations, despite most being aware of the benefits of "active transport" such as riding and cycling.
The survey, of almost 700 Victorian children in rural and regional areas, found 46 per cent of primary school children were driven home from school by their parents.
The reasons given by parents for collecting their child from school by car included the school being too far away to walk (47 per cent), concerns about traffic danger (45 per cent), the school pick-up being on the way to another activity or destination (33 per cent), the child being too young or unreliable (22 per cent) and concerns about "stranger danger" or dangers from other adults (20 per cent).
October is Walk To School Month, a VicHealth initiative encouraging families to walk to and from school.
Mother of two Ali Pain is an exception to the survey, saying her sons, Patrick, 10, and Luke, 7, would rather travel independently than be driven everywhere.
"They walk, ride or scoot to and from school every day, rain or shine," Ms Pain said. "They would much prefer to be with their mates. Once I was sure they were mature enough not to chase a ball on to the road, I let them walk independently."
Both boys walk around 1km to school with friends, but Luke is usually also accompanied by a parent - even if he insists mum or dad walk behind.
Ms Pain praised the boys' inner-west primary school for encouraging children to use active transport.
"I would say around 85 per cent of the children walk or ride to school, so there are always a lot of people for the boys to talk to along the way."
Post-doctoral research fellow Allison Carver, who co-authored the report, said most parents acknowledged the benefits of active transport but many struggled to put it into practice.
"Initially parents should walk with their children, but work on building their skills so they can eventually walk or cycle themselves. Of course, the age at which a child is ready travel unaccompanied will depend on the individual child as well as how far they need to walk and their local infrastructure."
Ms Carver said it was ironic one of the main parental concerns was traffic, yet they were adding to it by driving themselves.
"Another issue we came across was one of convenience. Driving to local destinations seems to be the default option, because it is considered easier. We have become a very car-driven society and we really need to encourage a change in parental attitudes on that one," Ms Carver said.
She said 85 per cent of parents surveyed said they were allowed to go out alone at a younger age than they allowed their children to do, but said increased traffic risks and a perceived increased risk of harm from strangers prevented them from doing the same with their children.
Cameron McLeod, manager of Physical Activity at VicHealth, said VicHealth research showed almost half the parents of 5-11 year olds believed there was a high risk their child would be abducted if they walked around their neighbourhood alone.
Mr McLeod described these fears as irrational and ultimately unhealthy.
"The world has changed, yes, and this includes having access to a huge amount of information through technology, which can make it difficult to distinguish between real and perceived danger," Mr McLeod said.
"Children need opportunities to walk their neighbourhoods alone. Of course exercise is important for their physical health, but there are also benefits for mental health as independence helps build resilience," Mr McLeod said.
The Deakin University research concluded that programs to improve road safety, as well as initiatives to build social trust and connectedness, would help increase the number of children walking or cycling to school.