Is Driving Your Kids Around Safer Than Letting Them Roam Outside on Their Own?

Soccer Mom and kids

Many parents don’t let their kids walk to school or play outside on their own for fear of pedestrian-automobile accidents, bicyclist-automobile accidents, or sexual predators. Instead, they end up spending a lot of time driving their kids to school and to structured activities like sports practices and games, playdates, music lessons, etc.

The data I’ve uncovered indicates that far more children in the United States die as passengers in motor vehicle accidents than the sum total of children who die as pedestrians, bicyclists, and victims of sexual predators.About 2,500 children under 16 die each year in motor vehicle accidents. (See p. 25 of this article.) About 20% of traffic fatalities to children under 16 are to pedestrians (see p. 10 of this article), and about 130 are bicyclists (see this article), so of the 2,500 motor vehicle deaths, about 1,820 occur when the child is a passenger in a vehicle.

About 100 children are abducted by strangers per year, and about 50 of these are killed, with the rest being returned to their parents. (See this article for a summary of the data on sexual predators.)

So, here’s the tally:

  • death as motor vehicle passenger = 1,820
  • death as roamer = 500 + 130 + 50 = 680

That’s almost a three to one greater risk of death as a passenger in a motor vehicle passenger than death as a roamer – i.e. the sum total of death as a pedestrian, bicyclist, and victim of a sexual predator.

Does all this mean that soccer moms (or dads) are evil? Of course not. Parents don’t have evil intent when they get into accidents that injure or kill their children.

However, it does indicate that parents grossly overestimate the danger of their children roaming around on their own, and they grossly underestimate the danger of driving their kids around.

Parents think they’re keeping their kids out of danger by driving them around rather than letting them play, walk, and bicycle in their neighborhoods. The data strongly indicates otherwise…

[Note: I’ve rounded numbers to make the math simple and taken data from different years for this analysis by necessity. However, I have not biased the results in one direction or another. In any event, the results are so strong that I’m quite sure that “perfect data” would not alter the basic result.]

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5 Responses to Is Driving Your Kids Around Safer Than Letting Them Roam Outside on Their Own?

  1. Statistics aren’t going to trump headlines.

    Sorry, but the emotion content on this issue is too high. I’ve got a newspaper article on the table about an abduction last week in San Jose and an e-mail from our school this morning about an abduction attempt last Friday at Castilleja. There have been past abduction attempts near our local elementary schools, and the response was to lock down all of the schools during the day.

    Attempted and successful abductions happen frequently enough that it is always in a parent’s mind. All it takes is a steady drip of one lurid abduction news story every other month to keep a parent worried. This is going to tip the activity balance toward playdates, organized sports and indoor pastimes.

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    OK, if headlines trump statistics, then do you think we’ll see a widespread boycott of toys made in China this Christmas?

    I believe that if we present the facts – the statistics – to *lots* of people somehow (in headlines???), they can become more thoughtful.

  3. June says:

    As parents, given the publicity of child abusers, etc., we are all paranoid and are constantly thinking about the safety of our kids. I don’t think we would feel comfortable if our kids were out roaming alone (not least because we don’t want our kids to be “loners”). I think the idea is that the kids are playing, roaming, exploring as a group of >1; that parents in the neighborhood keep an eye out, are aware of who their kids are hanging with; that the kids stick together and look out for each other — remember the buddy system?

    Of course, this is all ideal and a fabulous idea, though I don’t really see how to make it work, especially in an urban setting.

    As for the numbers.. is it an apples to apples comparison?.. meaning, how much of the increase in motor deaths is attributed to the fact that there are fewer people who move around without motor vehicles? If there were an equal number of kids in cars (for an equal time interval) to the kids on foot/bicycle/scooter/rollerblades/skateboard/ abducted, would the numbers still look the same? what about city vs suburb? SF drivers appear to be good at hitting pedestrians..

  4. Lydia says:

    Yes, in the ideal world, I want my child to play outside freely with neighborhood kids, and all neighbors know each other and their children. To be honest, I hardly even see my neighbor’s children or themselves. My utmost concern for activities is that my child is safe. If it means that he has to play indoors and I have to schedule playdates, it just has to be this way. Our childhood was different from our children’s. I try not to let nostalgia clouds my judgement.

  5. Michael Tarr says:

    Should look at the work of John Pucher:

    he is the best authority about bike safety, accidents, etc.