Tue, Sep 18, 2007 - Page 16 News List

US cities wake up to the benefits of walking to school

Walking or biking to school has become less common as fears of traffic accidents and predators increase, but supervised walking groups can have a positive impact n health - and more

By JANE E. BRODY  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

ILLUSTRATION: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The signs say "School Is Open, Drive Safely." Of course, one should always drive safely, school or no school, and not only "when children are present," as speed limit signs near schools often state. If only these signs reflected what health and safety experts hope will become a major change in how children get to and from school and after-school activities.

Forty years ago, half of all students walked or bicycled to school. Today, fewer than 15 percent travel on their own steam. One-quarter take buses, and about 60 percent are transported in private automobiles, usually driven by a parent or, sometimes, a teenager.

The change was primarily motivated by parents' safety concerns - a desire to protect their children from traffic hazards and predators. But it has had several unfortunate consequences. Children's lives have become far more sedentary. They are fatter than ever and at greater risk of developing hypertension, diabetes and heart disease at young ages.

The sedentary life also affects their behavior and the ability to learn. Studies have shown that children who engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity show improvement in concentration, memory, learning, creativity and problem solving, as well as mood, for up to two hours after exercise.

With more children being driven to school, traffic congestion has mushroomed. That has increased stress to drivers and risks to pedestrians and cyclists, as well as air pollution, especially in and around schools. Parents who drive their children to school make up about a quarter of morning commuters. More traffic also means more vehicular accidents, endangering the lives of children and the adults who drive them. It has become a vicious cycle that must be broken, and soon.

Safely moving children to and from school and after-school activities is a matter of great concern, not only to parents, but also to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in July issued a policy statement on school transportation safety.

SCHOOL BUSES VS. CARS

The academy's statistics on injuries and fatalities suggest that being driven to school in a passenger vehicle is by far the most dangerous way to get there, and riding in a school bus is the safest. Seventy-five percent of the fatalities and 84 percent of the injuries occur in passenger vehicles, but just 2 percent of student deaths and 4 percent of injuries result from travel by school bus.

The numbers might not tell a complete story. The academy's Committee on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention and the Council on School Health pointed out that "school bus crash data are incomplete, and that injuries cannot be reliably estimated.

"The first emergency-department-based study of non-fatal school-bus-related injuries found that the number of injuries, 17,000 annually to children 0 to 19 years of age, greatly exceeded previously published estimates."

When the Minneapolis highway bridge collapsed this summer and a school bus filled with children plunged toward the Mississippi River, witnesses described children "flying" around in the bus. There are just two ways that could have occurred. Either the bus was not equipped with safety restraints or the children, all of whom escaped safely, were not buckled in.

Before child-restraint systems and safety belts came along, large school buses relied on "compartmentalization" to protect their occupants. This meant closely spaced seats with high energy-absorbing backs, which we now know to be inadequate, especially in rollovers and side impacts with other large vehicles. As of this summer, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York, as well as many local school districts, had passed laws requiring seat belts in school buses. California requires them in newly made buses.

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