Last reviewed 19 August 2016

The journey to school is one of the high-risk times of a child’s life, whether walking to school, cycling, using a school bus or being ferried in a parent’s car. Education Writer Michael Evans considers the schools’ role.

Nearly a fifth of child road accidents in the UK occur on the journey to and from school, although more children are killed or seriously injured on their way home.

In our present health conscious society, walking is considered to be the favoured way of getting to school. Not only is walking free, but it is good exercise. Children are recommended to undertake at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day, but only 21% of boys and 16% of girls in the 5–15 age group manage to achieve this, so a walk to school would certainly help towards this aspiration.

Young children can experience the importance of holding hands and learning about safe places to cross the road, leading to an early understanding of the Green Cross Code.

Walking to school also provides ample opportunity for learning practical pedestrian skills. There are also many curriculum opportunities involving traffic volumes, speed, the planning of safer routes and studies of road casualty history on particular routes.

A downside of walking to school, particularly in urban areas, is that children can be subjected to high levels of air pollution. Also, especially in rural areas, heavy traffic coupled with poor or non-existent footways can be a major problem.

Statistically, walking can also be a dangerous activity. Roughly two-thirds of the UK children killed or seriously injured each year are pedestrians and casualty rates rise rapidly between the ages of 9 and 12.

In spite of all its positive aspects since 1995–97, walking to school has declined by 31%.

The natural progression from walking is cycling, but this also has its problems. It is accepted that up until the age of about nine, children have little understanding of the speed of approaching traffic. This is one of the reasons that many schools discourage younger children from cycling to school.

Also the Highway Act 1835 together with a later amendment, prohibits the riding of bicycles and tricycles on a footpath by the side of a road. An infringement can lead to a £50 fixed penalty or a £500 fine.

There is a misconception that young children are permitted to cycle on pavements, but this is not the case. The fact is that children under 10 cannot be prosecuted for this offence because they are below the age of criminal responsibility and fixed penalty notices can only be given to someone aged 16 or over.

However, since most children who cycle to school are over the age of 10, for them the law is clear; it is illegal to cycle on a pavement unless it has a marked cycle track. Police officers have powers to arrest, fine or caution them for doing this.

Lightweight scooters have become increasingly popular in recent years and are now widely used as a means of getting to school. Safety advice is clear that these should not be used on the road, especially when ridden by children.

Thus the only place to use a scooter is on the pavement, but it has been suggested that scooters are covered by the same legislation as bicycles, so the legal position is far from clear.

The answer is surely for a common sense approach.

It is clearly not sensible for throngs of cyclists and scooter users to battle their way through pedestrians on busy pavements, but given an understanding that the pedestrian has the right of way, provided there is room, using a pavement should not be a massive problem.

Of course, this is illegal, but it can be argued that it is a lot safer than riding on the road.

Many believe that the only way to ensure safety is to provide dedicated cycle routes that will keep cyclists separate from other road users, while the view of Cycling UK is that better training for cyclists would help them to feel more confident about riding on the road.

Training is obviously vital in all aspects of road safety. As children grow up and become increasingly independent, they are no longer subject to continual adult supervision. They need to master the necessary skills that will help to keep them safe and schools have a duty to ensure that appropriate training is available.

Many children travel to school by bus, coach or minibus and parents assume that this will be a safe way for their children to travel, but here again a number of considerations will need to be taken into account.

Although parents are legally responsible for ensuring that their children attend school, many are forced to rely on school transport. Parents of young children in particular have concerns about who is responsible for safety and supervision since the driver is usually the only adult on board. Schools must liaise with all parties concerned to provide the necessary reassurances.

The use of seat belts has greatly reduced casualty levels in the event of an accident, but a major danger point continues to be associated with drop-off points. There have been numerous cases of children getting off school buses, walking around the back to cross the road and being killed when they are hit by oncoming vehicles. This again stresses the importance of ongoing safety training.

Being taken to school by car is now very common, even for journeys that would formerly have been regarded as a “short walk”.

The vast majority of schools were never designed to accommodate large numbers of cars at the beginning and end of every day and this can be a major problem. The only answer to this is to have a very positive policy of communication. There must be clear guidelines with respect to drop-off points, pick-up points and timings. Keep-clear markings must be respected and as a last resort, there must be a good liaison with the police to deal with any unacceptable parental behaviour.

Parents often need guidance. It is the car driver’s responsibility to ensure that child passengers are using appropriate seat belts and booster seats. The law requires children to use booster seats until they are 12 years old or 135cm tall (4ft 5in), whichever comes first.

Knowledge of the consequences of leaving dogs locked in cars on hot days is widespread, but many adults overlook the fact that this also applies to children. In the USA, where admittedly the climate tends to be more extreme than ours, an average of 37 children die each year after being locked inside a hot car. It is very easy for a parent to pop into school to have a quick word with a child’s teacher, to get distracted and forget about the smaller child or sleeping baby left locked in the car.

Schools can make a major contribution to the safety of journeys to and from school. Much of this will be through training initiatives with pupils, but probably just as important will be the development of effective and appropriate methods of communication with parents, together with a knowledge base to give up-to-date advice.