The school year has begun, the days are getting shorter and the holidays are right around the corner. As a result, families are on the go in less daylight and variable weather, by foot, bicycles and vehicles. It’s a good time to think about how to use active transportation while staying safe in an increasingly busy world.

“Walking and biking are fantastic ways to get exercise and I want to see more families choosing active transportation,” said Dr. Beth Ebel, attending physician at Seattle Children’s and lead of the Safe and Active Transport Section at the University of Washington/Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center. “Parents can help keep their children injury-free when they’re on the go by advocating for safe places for active transportation and consistently practicing and enforcing safe behaviors while traveling by any mode, whether near or far.”

Advocate for safety

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported a 9.5% increase in pedestrian deaths in 2015 after years of declines, resulting in the highest number of pedestrian deaths in nearly 20 years.

“Walking and biking present a growing risk for everyone, and yet they’re wonderful,” said Ebel. “We all need to advocate with our cities and schools for safe places for people to walk and bike.”

Ebel encourages parents to work with their city and schools to create sidewalks, paths and lanes that separate vehicles from pedestrians and bikers. She also urges everyone to follow new city laws that lower the speed limit to 20 mph in school zones and residential roads. Neighborhoods can request structural changes to keep vehicle speeds down through the use of traffic roundabouts, narrower lanes and speed-enforcement cameras. At 20 mph, drivers have a wider field of vision, are more able to stop in time to avoid a crash, and if they do crash, there will be less injury and damage since lower speed equals less force.

Pedestrian safety

Children and teens need to be active at least 60 minutes each day. A great way to get some of that exercise is by walking. Teaching young children how to be safe pedestrians is vital, but many people are surprised to learn that teen pedestrians are more likely than younger children to be injured or killed by a vehicle.

Ebel provided these tips for teaching and practicing pedestrian safety:

  • Walk on sidewalks or paths whenever possible.
  • Hold young children’s hands in parking lots and explain how to watch for signs that a car is about to back up, such as brake lights or exhaust.
  • Be seen! Choose coats and backpacks with reflective strips, or add some of your own.
  • Use traffic signals and crosswalks when crossing streets.
  • Teach children to look left, right and left again before crossing the street. Have them make eye contact and wave to drivers before stepping out, and keep looking for safety the whole way across.
  • Have an adult cross the street with your child until they are 10. It’s difficult for younger kids to judge the speed and distance of oncoming traffic.
  • Remind your tween and teen about being alert and engaged around traffic (put the phone down!). Reinforce the importance of follow the rules, including crossing at intersections, and making eye contact with drivers before walking in front of them.
  • Set a good example by crossing at intersections, removing headphones and putting phones and other devices down while crossing the street.

Bike safety

When it comes to biking safety, being seen, following the rules and using the proper equipment are the items to focus on.

“While biking, it’s easy for the unexpected to happen. Your bike can hit a grate and flip over, and there’s no time to react,” said Ebel. “I regularly take care of  kids whose lives have been saved by wearing a properly fit bicycle helmet. As a parent, I’m fierce about my children taking the simple step of wearing a helmet for every single ride.”

Ebel’s tips for safe biking:

  • Use a bicycle that is the right size. Your child should be able to sit on the seat with their feet flat on the ground and the handlebars should be below shoulder-height.
  • Make sure the bike is equipped with reflectors and lights at this time of year. Reflective strips on clothing and backpacks also help your child be seen.
  • Set rules about where to ride. Children under 10 should ride on the sidewalk and be extra careful when passing driveways and alleys. When you feel your older child is ready for riding in the street, map out the safest route, ideally with bike lanes or paths. Insist on them obeying traffic rules, crossing at intersections, riding on the right in the same direction as cars, looking out for doors opening from parked cars and riding single file.
  • Keep hands on the handlebars and leave the earbuds out. Stay alert and ready to react.
  • Wear a helmet with a CPSC or Snell sticker inside. The helmet needs to sit level on your child’s head, low on the forehead, no more than two finger widths above the eyebrows. The straps on the sides should be even and flat, and form a “Y’ under each earlobe. The chin strap should be snug, with only enough room to insert a finger between the buckle and chin.

“Bike helmets reduce the risk of head injury from a bike crash by 85%,” said Ebel. “Parents can work together with the parents of their kids’ friends to make wearing bike helmets non-negotiable.”

Child passenger safety

Car crashes are still a leading cause of death for children in the U.S. Use a car seat made for your child’s size and age and install it correctly. Follow the instructions from the manufacturer as well as your vehicle’s instructions. Don’t be tempted to transition your child to the next stage of car seat too soon. Each stage is less protective, so there is no rush to reach the next milestone.

“I’m seeing more parents who are savvy about the newest science around keeping kids safe in the car,” said Ebel. “They’re teaching others, through their example, that children need to remain rear-facing until at least age 2.  More parents now know that kids aren’t physically big enough to be safely protected with just seat belts until they are typically around 4’9” tall, between 10 and 12 years of age.”

Stages of car seat use:

  • From birth up to at least age 2, buckle your child in a rear-facing car seat in the back seat. Make sure the seat is buckled tightly and doesn’t move more than an inch in any direction. Check that the harness straps are snug.
  • After age 2, keep your child in the back seat, in a forward-facing car seat with a five-point harness. Use this seat until they reach the maximum height or weight for that particular seat, usually around age 5 or 6. Make sure the seat is buckled tightly and doesn’t move more than an inch in any direction. Check that the harness straps are snug.
  • When a child has outgrown their harness seat, they can use a booster seat in the back seat. A booster raises them up so that the lap and shoulder belt fits correctly. Keep your child in a booster seat until the seatbelt fits, typically around 10 to 12 years of age, or until the child is 4’9” tall.
  • When your child has outgrown the booster seat, they can use the seat belts in the back seat. The belts fit properly when the lap belt lays across their upper thighs and the shoulder belt lays across their chest.
  • Kids should ride in the back seat until 13.
  • All passengers need to buckle up for every ride.

Advice to always remember

Whether your family is driving, walking or biking, stay alert and free from distractions and use proper safety equipment. Do this for every outing, no matter the distance. Your child is watching and learning from you.

“Kids are smart. They watch your actions, not your words,” said Ebel. “Be consistent with those few important safety steps, and follow them every time. No exceptions.”