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Go play in the traffic

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Children need to encounter the dangers of the real world, and parents need to be encouraged to give them more freedom

Children both want to play outdoors and need to do so to promote their physical and intellectual health.

Streets provide a rich source of stimulation for children, where they learn how to have fun, to explore their environment and to develop their own capabilities while picking up 'street wisdom' along the way.

The promotion of Home Zones attempts to deal with two issues: child road-safety and community contact - and traffic is seen as an impediment to both, denying children the ability to 'play out'. As a campaigner for children's play, I am reluctant to criticise Home Zones. Indeed, as an inner-city pedestrian, I like slower drivers in residential areas.

Car use is increasing, with nine per cent more vehicle miles travelled since 1990. Efforts to persuade people to drive less have been ineffective.

The car provides people with a quick, convenient and weatherproof way of getting about, which they are reluctant to relinquish, and it must be remembered that parents are among the driving statistics. It should not be forgotten that children do gain benefits from the undoubted freedom that the car brings.

Home Zones - usually a 20mph speed-limit area with various additional, carefully-designed changes in road-features - are an attempt to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety.

With more and more cars on the road and a great deal of publicity about the dangers facing children playing out, it may be surprising to learn that child deaths on British roads have been in sharp decline for 40 years. In 1999 there were 221 such fatalities, half of whom were passengers in vehicles, rather than pedestrians. Statistics must be put into perspective. Accidents of all kinds have been falling and being indoors is now more dangerous than being outside.

Children are playing indoors more than in the past. In 1986, children each walked an average of 1,588 km per year, while in 1999 it was only 976km. However, fatalities per mile walked have also fallen, by 34 per cent between 1986 and 1991. There are many reasons for this, including the development of better emergency medical care. But the fact that minor injuries have fallen at a slower rate than serious and fatal ones suggests that road design, driver awareness and anti-lock brakes have played a significant part.

The figures show that an increasing proportion of child-pedestrian injuries are 'minor', suggesting that when a vehicle hits them, it is travelling slowly. These gradual improvements may be the reason that 20mph speed limits do not significantly affect injury rates. In this light, Home Zones, although pleasant, could not really be argued to do much to reduce child-pedestrian injuries, because these are declining already through other measures.

But this is not why I have my doubts about Home Zones. Parental fear of traffic accidents is not the major reason why children do not play out. More dispersed and spacious housing and increased car-use mean that people are not as familiar with their locale, or their neighbours, as in previous generations. But more importantly, concerns about strangerdanger, older child-bullies and the possibility of falling in with a bad crowd, reveal a greater degree of mistrust of other people than in the past.

Parents are bombarded with possible problems to worry about, encouraging them to watch their children all the time. Letting children out to play unattended is perceived by some social services as a warning indicator of child neglect. In these circumstances, letting children play out is increasingly just not the done thing.

Which brings us to the second purpose of Home Zones. It is not possible to create a community through a process of consultation and the installation of chicanes. At present, the climate of fear surrounding children is so great that many adults feel unable to talk to children they see in public places, even when they feel the child may be in some danger. Suspicion of unaccompanied adult males in public parks makes such activity uncomfortable, even if the person has a dog to walk. If parents are to feel better about letting their children enjoy safer streets then there must be a change, not so much in the built environment, but in their hearts and minds.

No matter how sensitively and thoroughly it is conducted, a consultation exercise cannot provide a lasting feeling of security when people are inundated with scares about the big bad world every day in the media. A well-designed and pedestrian-friendly environment is to be applauded but it cannot significantly influence behaviour.

Childhood is a transient part of a person's life. They are going to have to learn to cross a busy road, and talk to someone in the street at some point.

If children are to have the scary, exciting, dirty and enjoyable experiences that people of my age might remember, then those in power are going to have to stop frightening parents into locking them away.

Kate Moorcock-Abley is a founder member of Families for Freedom and researcher into child safety

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