A Guide to Teaching Children Traffic & Road Safety
From a young age, children should learn about road safety. Children often lack the spatial awareness required for crossing a street or being near a road. Kids are also more likely to go unseen by drivers, which increases their chances of risk or injury. Accidents can happen unexpectedly and suddenly, so it is important for parents to instill safe habits that become second nature to kids. Properly explaining the dangers that cars can pose can help prevent serious mishaps.
Road Dangers and Risk for Kids
Without proper supervision, children are susceptible to a number of risks on the road. Kids may find it difficult to gauge the presence, speed and distance of oncoming traffic. They are also likely to be absorbed or distracted by other activities, such as talking to another child, playing with objects or riding a bicycle. Adults can actively help children navigate their surroundings and develop road and traffic safety by instilling awareness at a young age.
Dangerous Road Conditions for Kids
Dangerous road and driver conditions can jeopardize the safety of kids. In addition to poor weather conditions which can make roads slick, drivers may be distracted or aggressive when taking to the road. Improper signage can also be problematic for otherwise conscientious drivers. Being aware of common scenarios can help ensure that you and your children know how to react.
Not all drivers give 100% of their attention to the road. Sometimes, they may be preoccupied by activities like singing along to the radio or talking on the phone. Sending a text message requires drivers to take their eyes off the road for multiple seconds, which can mean a driver will drive the length of a football field without paying attention. Checking directions may also lead a driver to avert their focus. In total, distracted driving claimed 3,142 lives in 2019.
Adults with young children need to practice awareness measures to avoid drivers who aren’t completely aware of their surroundings. When your own children are in the car, it’s important to minimize their temper tantrums and general discomfort. Adults can plan ahead by keeping their children occupied with books or movies. In the worst case scenario, it’s best to pull over to attend to a child’s needs rather than dealing with an issue while trying to stay concentrated on the road.
Road rage leads to aggressive driving behaviors which can put other drivers, pedestrians and kids at risk. Aggressive drivers may disobey traffic signs, fail to observe safety zone laws or drive over the speed limit. Other typical behaviors include changing lanes frequently or yelling at other drivers. Often, drivers resort to such aggressive driving habits when faced with traffic congestion beyond their control.
You can avoid potentially dangerous situations by letting aggressive drivers pass, leaving sufficient space between yourself and a speeding driver, and driving defensively. In some situations, you may even want to call the police and alert them to an extremely reckless driver. Remember, adults who exhibit aggressive driving behavior in front of children can impact their kids’ habits and manners and influence how they drive in the future. To foster good driving values, keep calm and drive courteously.
Lack of Proper Signage
Inadequate road signage can cause accidents. For instance, faded crosswalk paint can lead children to cross the road in the wrong place, and a missing stop sign can make other drivers run through an intersection. To ensure your safety and the safety of other pedestrians and drivers, use caution whenever you are in or around other cars. Slow down or stop when approaching an intersection, look for other vehicles at intersections even if a stoplight flashes green and reduce speed when approaching a construction zone.
Reporting Road Safety Issues
Reporting dangerous conditions can help make the roads a safer place for all drivers. While circumstances may change depending on your location, below are a few places you should contact:
- Your state’s Department of Transportation. If you’re facing an issue on highways or roads, call your state’s Department of Transportation and file a complaint. Uneven pavement, potholes and abrupt edges commonly lead to accidents and should be addressed. If your city or county has a road maintenance division, you may also want to consider calling.
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If you’ve experienced a vehicle, tire, car seat or equipment safety problem, it is important to report the issue. NHTSA reviews every complaint to check for widespread defect issues, and your action might save someone else further down the line.
- A local homeowner’s association. If you live in a small neighborhood with potentially unsafe conditions, a local HOA may be able to offer a solution. Most HOAs are charged with ensuring the safety of neighbors and addressing the concerns of property owners.
Teaching Kids Road and Traffic Safety
Road and traffic safety should be revisited and taught to children as they grow up. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to incorporate safety lessons in daily life and make learning fun. Depending on a child’s age, you may want to adapt differing lessons and practices. Those under the age of five can be taught the basics of traffic awareness and school-age children can be shown how to start becoming aware of cars. Those above the age of nine can be taught how to walk alone on sidewalks and make safer choices while bicycling or doing other activities near a road.
Parental Role in Teaching Road and Traffic Safety
Parents and adult caregivers play a vital role in teaching children road safety skills. As children receive guidance about how to safely cross a road or walk near cars, such behaviors become ingrained motor skills. Beyond verbal lessons, demonstrating safety precautions in a vehicle can also help children learn driving strategies to implement later in life. Such knowledge has been proven to help children interact with traffic safely.
Safe Paths to School — A Road and Traffic Safety Board Game
You can teach your children about road safety in this fun board game, "Safe Paths to School." The gameplay dives into important road safety information, such as understanding traffic signs, crossing the street safely and behaving appropriately in a car.
- Game board and game material printables
- 6-Sided die (optional)
- Tape or glue stick
The game’s mission is to get to school safely from home while paying attention to road signs along the way. This game can be a fun exercise for children to be familiar with road signs.
Play the "Safe Paths to School" Board Game With Your Child
Download Printable Game
Teaching Road and Traffic Safety by Age Group
Teaching children about road and traffic safety is a must, but they shouldn’t be given more information than they can handle. Compared to those who are toddlers, those aged 12 and above have a better ability to learn how to assess risk on the road and make informed decisions. Remember that the rational part of even a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25. Below are a few basic road rules and strategies to consider based on a child’s age group.
Toddlers, or those aged three and under, are too young to truly understand the risk and danger that comes with being on or near the road. Kids in this age group are often the ones who end up running into the road to chase a toy or following something that has caught their attention without looking both ways on a street.
To mitigate the risk, toddlers should be taught the basics of road safety. One of the most important lessons to impart is to never to be near a road without an adult holding their hand. Kids below the age of three should also begin having an awareness and understanding of where the sidewalk ends and the road begins. Knowing the difference between roads, sidewalks, crosswalks and driveways can significantly reduce the likelihood of accidents.
Speaking sternly to emphasize danger may be effective. But it’s easy to make safety lessons into a game, as well. For instance, adults can teach toddlers how to press the pedestrian crossing button and count how many seconds it takes for the “green man” to appear. Alternatively, playing a quick round of “I Spy” and describing sidewalks or traffic lights in easy-to-understand terms can help toddlers begin to identify such spots quickly.
Children between the ages of three and five should always be accompanied by an adult. At those ages, kids are also able to recognize road signs, such as the hexagonal STOP sign, the basic “stop, look and listen” rule, and colors such as green, yellow and red. Be creative by making stories out of road signs and helping kids understand what the traffic lights or “robots” are signaling.
Preschoolers are not yet equipped to cross the street alone, but they are easily influenced by those around them and can be taught how to walk on sidewalks furthest away from traffic. The best way to teach road safety skills is through demonstration. Exhibit good behaviors by wearing a seatbelt, obeying road rules and always looking both ways before crossing a road. Children will be likely to imitate safe routines.
At school age, or between five and eight, it’s still important that children are accompanied or at least supervised by an adult while on the road — even if only traveling a short distance from a bus stop to a house. However, they can learn and begin to remember safer paths and lead the way without always holding an adult’s hand.
To start, teach children about safe places to cross the road, such as crosswalks, underpasses or footbridges. They should also learn how to identify crossing-patrol authorities and be able to read certain traffic signs. Ask simple questions to see if children have a firm grasp of basic concepts. For example: What does the red light mean at a crosswalk? What should be done before crossing the road? Are there any shortcuts a child can take when walking around the neighborhood to avoid roads all together?
Children who are nine to 12 can learn with increasing frankness about the dangers of the road, but it is important not to overload them with information they can’t handle. Around this age, it may be time to consider whether a child can walk independently, although an evaluation often depends on a kid’s individual level of development and the risk of serious danger around the area.
Kids who understand and practice pedestrian road safety rules may be ready. Otherwise, they may need more supervision. Parents can make a determination by letting a child take the lead when walking to school to see if they know how to cross streets and navigate to their destination. They can also be quizzed about common landmarks and road signs seen along the way.
Teaching Road and Traffic Safety in Various Situations
Different situations call for different road safety actions. For example, the rules of crossing a road do not necessarily apply to kids who are playing at the park. Below are a few scenarios that can help adults understand how to instill good traffic safety behaviors regardless of the situation.
- SituationKeeping Kids Safe
- Playing in front of a houseMake sure that children are aware of the distance from a yard to the road. Ensure they go no farther than the sidewalk or the edge of the property and teach them to not hastily chase after toys, insects or other things that may lead them to lose track of their surroundings.
- Playing at the parkRoad safety isn’t all about cars — bikes and scooters are also part of the equation. Teach children to be aware of their surroundings and stay away from roadways frequented by cars. Children should also stay within an adult’s view.
- Walking in bad weatherWhen it is snowing or raining, children need to be taught to stay aware and alert. Because surfaces can be slick, individuals must be extra cautious when crossing a road, walking on a sidewalk or moving through a parking lot.
- Walking near busy roadsWhen walking along a busy road, children should be shown how to walk on the sidewalk farthest away from the road. They must also be shown how to cross a road only when a pedestrian sign is green. If they are unsure when to cross, teach them to time their cross with other individuals or ask for help from authorities or adults.
- Walking through parking lotsDrivers who back out of parking spaces may not see children walking behind them. Children should be taught to be particularly cautious when walking in parking lots. Just because a car is idle for a moment does not mean it has stopped moving altogether.
Driving Tips to Keep Everyone Safe
Aside from teaching children about road safety, defensive driving skills shown by adults can demonstrate the benefits of driving safely. In addition to ensuring that children, pedestrians and others avoid accidents and injuries, good driving behaviors can help adults to have lower auto insurance premiums, maintain a clean driving record, enhance employment opportunities and improve health. Whether an adult is new to the road or has been behind the wheel for years, they will be well-served by reviewing their habits and making adjustments to minimize risk.
How to Minimize Risk
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children aged 12 and younger. To minimize the risk of accidents, adults must drive defensively and take basic steps such as using seat belts, avoiding drunk driving and speeding, pulling over when tired and obeying the law. Road safety is a skill that needs to be continuously demonstrated and employed. Below are a few tips to remember.
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children aged 12 and younger.
Each day, eight people are killed from distracted driving. Do not attempt to multitask while driving, even if you must stop and pull over to make a call or send a message. Driving safety apps which turn off phone notifications can also be useful.
Practice defensive driving
Avoid aggressive and inattentive driving tendencies. Ensure there is sufficient space between you and the car in front of you and make adjustments as needed. If someone is speeding, let them pass you, and make sure to always use turn signals.
Not all drivers practice defensive driving strategies. To compensate, check your own mirrors frequently and always scan conditions further ahead. If you notice an aggressive driver, avoid them by taking the right most lane and signaling them to go ahead.
Follow the law
Obey speed limits, follow traffic signals and signs, respect yellow lights and keep kids below the age of 13 in the backseat. In addition, keep an eye out for construction, detours or roadblocks, and make sure everyone in your vehicle is securely buckled up.
Road Safety Apps
Phones and electronic devices can be highly distracting, but technology can also be used to help drivers arrive at their destinations. Many apps such as Google Maps are used every day, but a variety of others for both Android and IOS systems can be useful when it comes to brushing up on common traffic rules and being a safer driver. Below are three road safety apps that are worth downloading.
- TrueMotion Family: This app measures risky driver behavior and provides recommendations to improve them. It incentivizes safe driving by letting you earn “safety points” if you exhibit safe driving skills, which you can then use to redeem cash or other rewards.
- DriveSmart: DriveSmart is an all-in-one application that helps you track and improve your driving. You can obtain a certificate to improve your driving skills, receive metrics and information regarding your driving behaviors, earn points you can redeem with partners and more. It also prevents distracted driving by muting notifications as soon as you start driving.
- EverDrive: Competitive drivers can use EverDrive to see who drives the safest among family and friends. The app ranks you based on your behaviors, and it lets you win prizes and even qualify for auto insurance discounts if you receive a good driving score. If you receive a poor score, the app can teach you how to drive more safely.
The Benefits of Having a Clean Driving Record
Practicing safe and defensive driving can protect the people around you while also ensuring you maintain a clean driving record. Having no violations on your record not only makes you a good role model for children, but it can even help you further by lowering your auto insurance costs. Below are a few additional benefits.
Reduced auto insurance premiums
Most insurance companies reward you by reducing your premiums if you don’t have any accidents or violations on your record for a specific period of time.
Access to accident forgiveness
If you keep a clean driving record and avoid having an accident for a set number of months or longer, insurers will “forgive” your first accident by not increasing your premiums.
Retained vehicle worth
Being a careful driver means avoiding accidents and maintaining your car’s upkeep by checking your tires and oil regularly. Taken together, such actions can ensure the value of your vehicle and help it last many additional years.
A driver with a clean record not only avoids tickets — they also avoid accidents which can lead to injuries and costly medical bills. Learning safe driving habits can also reduce stress and improve your long-term mental and emotional well-being.
Expert Insight on Road Safety for Kids
- In your experience, how can road safety education change both children's and adults' behavior? How effective is that in decreasing accidents? Are there measures we should take in addition to attending an education course?
- How can we effectively raise awareness and encourage everyone to get involved in keeping the road and traffic safe?
Director of Media Relations, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Senior Director of External Engagement at Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA)
Subject Matter Expert, Driver Safety Education and Training
Public Information Officer (PIO), South Lake Tahoe California Highway Patrol
President Casey Feldman Foundation and EndDD.org
President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety
Founder & CEO at TeachMe TV
Additional Resources for Keeping Kids Safe
Adults who want to practice road safety and ensure that their kids stay safe on the road can look to the following resources.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The Centers provide nicely illustrated photos and guides that show how to keep children safe by buckling safety belts and using car seats and booster seats.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: Learning the basics of pedestrian safety is a must for adults and growing children. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration raises awareness of dangers by providing statistics and offering a wealth of resources for learning how to stay safe on the road.
- American Red Cross: The American Red Cross has provided a guide on everything you need to know in case disaster hits and you need to wait for emergency services. Strategies include carrying a disaster readiness kit, making sure you have snacks on hand and keeping an eye on the weather forecast.
- Nemours Kids Health: Nemours provides a practical and quick guide for adults on how to keep kids safe while in the car or waiting for the school bus.
About the Author
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Distracted Driving." Accessed September 28, 2021.
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Fatality Facts 2019: Children." Accessed September 27, 2021.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Distracted Driving." Accessed September 27, 2021.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Pedestrian Safety." Accessed September 28, 2021.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Traffic Safety Facts 2019." Accessed September 26, 2021.
- University of Rochester Medical Center. "Understanding the Teen Brain." Accessed September 29, 2021.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Child Passenger Safety: Get the Facts." Accessed October 21, 2021.