New Research Suggests Kids Need To Be Older Than You Think To Safely Cross Busy Streets

by Lisa Sadikman
Saklakova / Shutterstock

After years of holding her hand and teaching her to look left, right, then left again before stepping off the curb, the day my daughter finally walked to her friend’s house and across that busy street on her own was both nerve-wracking and thrilling. Deciding she could handle a little more independence wasn’t an easy thing to do.

Turns out it also might not have been the safe thing to do.

A new study released by the University of Iowa shows that children under the age of 14 don’t have the perceptual or motor skills to consistently cross busy streets on their own safely. Using a simulation, children ages 6 to 14 years old were asked to cross one lane of a busy road several times. The results showed accident rates as high as 8% with 6-year-olds, 6% for 8-year-olds, 5% for 10-year-olds and 2% for 12-year-olds. Kids 14 and older had no accidents.

Fourteen? Really? You gotta be kidding.

When I first read the study, I felt a little miffed. Sifting through the endless parenting opinions, approaches and recommendations out there already makes me feel plenty guilty about decisions I have and haven’t made. Does allowing my kid to cross the street on her own have to go on the list too?

I was much younger than 14 when I was roaming around our neighborhood on foot, bike, and roller skates. Granted, I lived in a relatively sleepy subdivision, but there was still traffic at certain times of day, especially when working parents were making their way home. I don’t remember how careful I was or if traversing the streets made me feel nervous. What I do remember is how good it felt to dash outside to my friend’s house, then go wherever it was we were off to — on our own.

Both of my older girls started crossing the street without me, but under my watchful eye at around 9 years old. My now-12-year-old has been crossing streets totally on her own for a year. She walks the dog around the neighborhood and the 20 minutes downtown for frozen yogurt with her friends. I’ve taught her to pay attention to traffic, use the “left, right, left” rule, and take her time. Her motor skills are pretty solid, and I trust her. What I haven’t taken into account until now is the developmental status of her perceptual ability.

According to the study, children do not make consistent perceptual decisions when it comes to judging the gap between a passing car and an oncoming vehicle. Their still evolving motor skills means younger children are not capable of timing their first step off the curb as well as adults. That translates into less time to cross the street before the next car approaches. It also means they’re more apt to be involved in an accident. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis reported 8,000 injuries and 207 fatalities involving motor vehicles and pedestrians age 14 and younger in 2014.

That’s not a small number.

I think we can agree that young kids are more vulnerable than adults when it comes to crossing the road. That seems obvious. The question is, when exactly are they old enough to be safe?

Reading the study, I agreed that kids 8 and younger seem too young to cross the street on their own. That said, as parents, we know our kids best, and as with any research or recommendation, we need to apply that information to our specific children and situations. I know parents who let their first-grade kids walk to school on their own. I also know that my youngest daughter, who is currently 5, won’t be able to do that next year. The line blurs, however, when I think of my tween. The findings show kids aren’t developmentally safe to cross the street by themselves until 14, yet I let my 12-year-old do it. While it makes me a bit defensive, I’m willing to look at the science, and make my own judgment call.

So much growth, both physically and emotionally, happens between the ages of 9 and 13. At 12, my daughter looks older than she is and a mature second sibling to her almost 15-year-old sister. According to a report by the American College of Pediatrics, between the ages of 11 and 13 the brain is experiencing rapid development and seeks out greater risk-reward behavior. Basically adolescents are buzz hounds looking for their next rush. Darting across the street without fully taking into account how fast traffic is moving is definitely a kind of thrill.

Like a lot of parents, I struggle with wanting to give my kids more independence and also protecting them from what often feels like a perilous world. Is the world a more dangerous place than it was 30 years ago? All signs point to no. Are we bombarded with more information, news, and sensationalism around raising our kids than our parents were? Absolutely. What I do appreciate is the time, effort, and funding being directed toward a better understanding how kids’ bodies and brains develop and function. Because, you know, science is real.