Two years ago, in the U.S. alone, about 7,485 pedestrians were struck and killed by drivers, and nearly 140,000 were sent to the emergency room the previous year. At the beginning of September, we almost became such a statistic with the 3-year-old child.
Carrying her tiny, tired body across the street and with both arms full, I kept my eye on the car at the light, an older black compact with heavily tinted windows. We had the right of way, but instead of yielding to us before turning left, the driver hit the gas and within seconds nearly ran us over, sending enough adrenaline into me to jump out of the way. They, an accelerating force of 3,000 pounds, must have missed us, not quite a 200-pound spinning target, only a few feet away. It was such a shocking scene that one bystander stopped to offer himself as a witness. However, the experience was not unusual in my life. As a pedestrian, I have had violent collisions with cars many, many times before.
As Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg says, we are facing a crisis on our roads. The fatality rate of children under 15 has more than doubled since 2018, from 5.8% to 11.9%, and that’s only for pedestrian deaths related to speeding, not other scenarios , such as driveway collisions with SUVs, which are also on the rise.
Growing up comes at a price, and for decades parents have been paying the price.
Parents naturally fear so-called accidents like car crashes more than any other risk to their children’s safety, with 9 in 10 of them believing that too many people are driving recklessly and endangering families on the road. But how does this fear translate into action or something beyond the grim acceptance we practice every day? Being responsible, waiting my turn to cross the street in the middle of the day, did not protect me and my child from a collision with 3,000 pounds of deadly steel. What protected us that day, in that fragile moment when suffering could have turned to devastation, was my vigilance.
Growing up comes at a price, and for decades parents have been paying the price. The cost is literal, yes, but it’s also figurative, or perhaps just less visible. The lost time with friends who live a bit further away, the daily stress of getting your kids to take them everywhere, the economic vulnerability of owning and maintaining a car if you’re already struggling with food and housing. If you think I’m exaggerating the profound impact of cars on our daily lives, consider this: in countries that have increased the age of children in car seats, the chance of parents having a third child is decreasing. Car seats aren’t the only factor in family planning, obviously—childcare and living expenses are fun issues, too! – but like New York Times report, “cars are just another part of the increased burden of having babies.”
It makes you wonder: What if communities were safe enough for kids to travel alone? “Parents will be freed from their own mental burden and will be able to invest in their own growth and relationship,” says Darby Saxby, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and co-director of the Center for the Changing Family. A child of the 80s, Saxby remembers being outside all day and playing with her neighbors until dark. She grew up roaming the suburbs of the Midwest and connecting with her own budding self, she says, but childlike independence like hers is much harder to achieve now.
Today, almost 1 in 5 children play outside only once a week or less, and children spend 35% less time in free play outside than their parents. Incredibly, this happened in just one generation. “We’re not talking about our grandparents or our great-grandparents,” Saxby says, “we’re talking about us.”
“It’s hard for us to imagine a full life without having to drive.”
There are several cited reasons for this change. Increased screen use, overworked parents, ever-competitive educators, and “stranger danger,” that misguided 1980s panic that still hangs around so many years later, all play a role. But, again, the biggest reason, and the one we’ve probably internalized the most, is cars. After all, despite the increase in youth gun deaths, children under the age of 17 are still more likely to be hit and killed by a car than to die in any other way. We talk a lot about parental burnout, but what we rarely talk about is how parental burnout is often a symptom of growing up.
Parents in the US are the most burned out. We are also the most dependent on cars. It’s a problem we can’t even see, says Anna Zivarts, program director of the Washington-based Disability Mobility Initiative. “Our communities are built around cars,” she says. “It’s hard for us to imagine a full life without having to drive.”
Zivarts couldn’t drive and wanted to. She has low vision, as does her 6-year-old son, so getting around by car is not an option. That’s why in 2005 she and her partner decided to move from San Francisco to New York, where they could more easily walk, bike and take public transportation for their daily commutes. She says that in New York she was allowed to be “like everyone else because most people don’t drive.” It was an empowering experience for someone who grew up where simply crossing the street to get the mail was a dangerous endeavor. In 2018, they moved again, this time to Seattle, to be close to their families.
As a person with disabilities who relies on a bike and whose job it is to advocate for safe streets, Zivarts doesn’t expect to be able to stay in Seattle much longer. She’s too frustrated with the city and how it’s responding to curbing road violence, which has been on the rise in recent years, and she’s too concerned about her child, who has a disability “that will last a lifetime.”
“Just for his survival,” Zivarts wonders, “should we move to another city?”
When it comes to mobility, adults with disabilities have a lot in common with children in general. Both depend on others to occupy them, and if they can’t, they probably don’t go out at all. A survey by ride-sharing service HopSkipDrive found that almost 40 percent of parents spend two to four hours a week driving their kids around, while 19 percent spend five to nine hours a week. More disturbing, however, is that 30% say that their children’s driving sometimes puts their job at risk, while 70% don’t know how their child will get home if they aren’t picked up by car. As if parenting wasn’t stressful enough. (A headline I ran across that I can’t get out of my head: “Morning Madness: Parents Spend a Total of 96 Hours Getting Kids in the Car Each Year!”)
“We’ve created terrible conditions for kids to walk,” said Kelsey Ralph, an associate professor of urban planning at Rutgers University. “I’m sure the screens are part of the story. But we have created an inhospitable place.”
It’s not a fun or healthy way to raise a human being, but it can feel necessary to keep them alive.
Since the 1970s, child traffic deaths decrease slowly and steadily. But for decades—as far back as the 1940s, according to some scientists—the time spent outside by children has also been declining, and just as steadily. It makes sense: Before automobiles began to take over in the 1920s, city streets were considered the preserve of pedestrians, children at play, and the like. But that changed when, after deaths skyrocketed and sparked public outrage along with effective anti-car activism, the auto industry doubled down and aggressively lobbied the government to target pedestrians rather than drivers. Today, car accidents are almost always blamed on the pedestrian or cyclist, even when it’s a child. Their campaign worked.
A century later, Ralph summed up what he saw in the study: “Fewer children are dying as pedestrians because there are no children on our streets.”
If you are a parent, you personally know what he is talking about. And you probably have friends with kids who know too. You worry about letting your child go outside alone, even to the bus stop, and especially if they are very young. You don’t want to be a helicopter parent, but the closer they are to traffic, the more nervous and controlling you become. It’s not a fun or healthy way to raise a human being, but it can feel necessary to keep them alive.
“If parents could walk their child to the front door of the classroom, they would,” says Sam Balto, a physical education teacher in Portland, Ore., and parent of two young children. You may know him from TikTok as Coach Balto, the GoPro-wearing enthusiast who takes dozens of kids to school on rides known as the “bike bus.”
Despite the inspirational joke of Saturday Night Live and guesting at The Kelly Clarkson Show, Balto isn’t shy about getting to know the darker side of cycling; in fact, while there is joy in the experience, he says, there are also unnecessary dangers that we don’t talk about enough. “Kids and cars are in direct competition,” he says. “We hold the parents accountable. But it really depends on our leaders.
Before the affluent and predominantly white school he attends now, Balto taught at an underserved school in Boston. He remembers one Latino student who couldn’t take the bus because he lived too close to campus, but also couldn’t walk because the road was too dangerous. The only way he could get to school safely, as his mother saw it, was to pay him to take an Uber every morning when she was already at work. Balto says the mother was never reimbursed by the school or the district. “You don’t have to look very hard to see the injustice,” he says.
Compared to white Americans, black Americans suffer more than twice as many traffic deaths while walking and almost twice as many while driving or riding in a car. Not surprisingly, researchers say structural racism in the U.S. transportation system is to blame. For communities of color, for example, there is a well-documented lack of public investment in infrastructure for safe walking and biking, especially along the expressways that have historically been paved through black and brown neighborhoods and tend to harm health by causing more air pollution and noise Blacks and Hispanics also suffer from more chronic diseases, such as diabetes, that can often be improved by increased physical activity. But given the dangers, where should these families go to improve their health in the first place?
Once we stop pretending that everything is fine, we can get our lives back – or at least our children’s lives.
“Many environments are not designed to promote exercise and wellness,” says Imelda Reyes, a pediatric nurse practitioner and associate dean of graduate education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She largely treats Hispanic children diagnosed with obesity and works with their parents to help them achieve their goals. “It’s bigger than a family just making ‘better choices,'” she says. “It really needs to be a systemic approach.”
This systemic approach, however it develops, will have to happen quickly because sprawl is worsening and climate change is right behind it.
It’s easy to see the ways in which the system fails or perhaps refuses to protect its most vulnerable, and not just with cars. But what if, instead of adapting to the harm of road violence, we refuse to accept it as inevitable? We must remember that in the charts documenting the victims of road violence over the decades, there is always a place at the beginning, far to the left, where the number is zero. If we fight hard enough for our streets, we can get that line down to zero again. Once we stop pretending that everything is fine, we can get our lives back – or at least our children’s lives.