Child pedestrian fatalities are up to twice as likely around parks as they are around schools, according to a study based on 30 years of U.S. crash data.
Child pedestrian safety initiatives, such as the Safe Routes to School program, tend to focus on schools, but traffic risks around parks deserve more attention, the study authors write in Injury Prevention.
"Fatalities and injuries in our transportation system, especially vulnerable ones such as children and pedestrians, are a vitally important and soluble issue, yet we treat them as the price of doing business," said lead author Nick Ferenchak, a civil engineer at the University of Colorado in Denver.
In the United States, motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 5 and 24 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every hour, about 40 children die on roads around the world, many on foot, according to the World Health Organization.
"We need to stop our practice of thinking myopically by focusing just around schools and start thinking about how we make our entire cities safer," Ferenchak told Reuters Health by email. "This is not just a transportation issue but a planning/land use issue as well."
Ferenchak and a coauthor looked at National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data on crashes in six cities between 1982 and 2012 for children under age 18 to identify where fatalities typically occur. Then they used GIS mapping to evaluate the quarter-mile surrounding parks to compare fatality rates to those around schools and the city as a whole.
They focused on the country's fastest-growing regions - the South and the West - and the cities there with the largest proportionate increases in population, on the theory that new infrastructure could affect the way schools, parks and trails are included in communities.
The analysis included Austin, Dallas and Houston in Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Denver and Los Angeles, and in all six cities, fatality risk around parks was found to be 1.16 to 1.81 times that of the city overall.
Researchers also found that fatalities near parks were 1.04 to 2.23 times more common compared to the vicinity of schools, with Dallas showing the biggest difference.
"This comes at a critically important time when we're seeing changes in U.S. transportation funding and a changing menu of options that states can choose from," said Charles DiMaggio, an director of injury research at the New York University School of Medicine, who was not involved with the study.
"We know that enforcement and education are important, but engineering is the most expensive and effective way to protect kids," he told Reuters Health by email. "We need, more than anything, to evaluate all of these efforts."
One limitation of the study, the researchers acknowledge, is that specific child pedestrian exposure numbers are hard to track accurately by geographic area. They are likely to vary by age, and may vary by city.
"If you're 5 years old, you're likely not far from home if you get injured," DiMaggio said. "But if you're 14 or 15, you're roaming more widely, which is tough to measure."
The study team suggests that solutions to the problem lie in the realms of transportation and urban design. Just as reduced speed limits and pedestrian crossings in school zones have lowered child pedestrian injury rates, similar transportation measures around parks could reduce fatalities.
However, that won't help in areas with major highways. In several cities studied, parks were often located near roads with four or six lanes and speeds above 70 miles per hour, Ferenchak noted. Instead, parks should be placed on slow, narrow roads in neighborhoods.
"Although I talk about expanding our considerations beyond schools, that is not a slight at the research being done around schools in the least," he said. "We'd like to build collaborations with Safe Routes to School because they have many important findings and best practices that could be applied in parks as well.