Association between parent perception of traffic danger, walking to school and the built environment

Author(s): Linda Rothman

Slidedeck Presentation Only (no paper submitted):

2C - Rothman - Driving Behaviour


According to the Canadian Health Measure Survey almost 9% of Canadian children ages 6-17 years are obese. Active school transportation (AST) provides an opportunity for increased physical activity for children and youth with the additional societal benefits of less traffic congestion, less pollution and fewer road traffic collisions. Parents are the key decision makers regarding school travel mode, with parent perceptions of traffic safety being a key factor in the decision making process. Many studies have reported negative relationships between perceived traffic safety risk and walking to school. Despite the importance of parent perceptions of traffic danger in determining school travel mode, factors that influence these perceptions are not well understood.

To determine if walking to school is associated with parent perception of traffic danger en route to school or at the school site. To examine the relationship between features of the built environment and parent-perceived traffic danger.

A cross-sectional parent/caregiver survey was conducted in 2011, in 20 elementary schools in Toronto, Canada. Built environment data from municipal sources and field audits were mapped onto school attendance boundaries. Analysis was conducted in 2013/2014, using repeated-measures logistic regression to model perceptions of traffic danger as a function of social and environmental variables.

The response rate was 38% with 733 surveys returned. Dangerous school route perception was associated with a 47% less likelihood of walking to school 4-5 times/week. Walking to school was not associated with perceptions of dangerous traffic at the school site. Higher flashing beacon density/roadway (OR 1.31) and observed dangerous midblock crossings near schools (OR 1.97) were associated with perceived route danger. Dead-end road (OR 0.70), collector road (OR.80) traffic light (OR 0.80) and school crossing guard densities (OR 0.89) were associated with no perceived danger.

Although the cross-sectional nature of this study did not permit inferences regarding causality, the associations found were compelling. Parental traffic concerns en route to school but not at the school site were associated with school travel mode for children in grades 4-6. This is important as traffic safety interventions are commonly focused on the immediate vicinities of the schools and not along walking routes; for example, car drop-off zones, school crossing guards and reduced speeds in school zones. Parent perceptions of dangerous routes were associated with several road features specific to crossing roads, such as; observer-rated dangerous midblock crossings, traffic lights and school crossing guards.

Identifying and changing specific road design issues along school routes to attenuate parent perceptions of traffic danger may have a greater impact on children walking. However, it is important that safety interventions also be directed near school sites considering the higher collision incidence and evidence of stop-sign violations and dangerous speeding near schools. Parents’ traffic concerns must be understood at each school to determine the best course of action. Results of this study will be shared with organizations interested in walking to school promotion and pedestrian safety, including schools, school boards and City of Toronto traffic planning and health promotion.