Friday, Jul 16, 2004

Child cyclists lack ability to judge traffic

Study finds young riders are less able to gauge how much time they have to cross busy streets

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Children -- even those as old as 12 -- may not have the cognitive abilities to cross the street safely on their bicycles, according to a new study. The research reveals that children have difficulty judging when it is safe to skirt through the gaps in oncoming traffic and routinely overestimate how quickly they can cross the street, details that may help explain why so many children are injured and killed in collisions with motor vehicles.

"Children have more difficulty than adults in fitting their actions to the environment," said Jodie Plumert, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa and lead author of the study.

"This may be particularly problematic in dynamic situations, where children must co-ordinate their own movement in relation to the movement of objects in the environment."

To conduct the study, published in today's edition of the Journal Child Development, researchers used virtual reality technology to allow participants to "ride" a stationery bicycle through a residential neighbourhood, where cars were travelling between 50 and 70 kilometres an hour.

The technology allowed researchers to, for the first time, put children in dangerous real-world situations, without actually having them risk injury.

The research team found that children and adults chose exactly the same size gaps in traffic to attempt crossing.

But the ability to actually cross was very different.

Adults cleared the lane, on average, two seconds before a car passed, but with children it was less than one second.

Dr. Plumert said the children left so little margin for error, there was not enough time to recover from even the smallest hesitation, such as a foot slipping off the pedal.

Allyson Hewitt, executive director of Safe Kids Canada, said the new research provides valuable information for parents and drivers alike.

"In our society, we tend to think of children as little adults. But this study shows us quite clearly that, even at age 12, a child on a bike doesn't have the same abilities as an adult," she said.

"Just because you put a helmet on your child and he assures you that he's big enough to go out riding alone doesn't mean that he actually has the ability," Ms. Hewitt cautioned.

Safety equipment, safety training and improved environments (such as bicycle paths and enforcement of traffic laws) can all reduce the number of injuries and deaths, she added.

About 80 per cent of Canadian children have a bicycle but the rate is higher in rural than urban areas. Safe Kids has, for years, said that children should not cross the street alone before age nine because they did not have adequate cognitive abilities to judge traffic.

Ms. Hewitt said the group may have to re-think that message because the new research shows that, even at age 12, there are serious gaps between children's perceptions and their abilities.