Cars, Not Strangers, Are the Biggest Threat to Kids

CC BY 2.0. Linda Aslund

Far more kids die each year in automobile accidents than get abducted in stereotypical 'stranger danger' situations. Why is so little being done about that?

Free-range parenting has received plenty of attention in recent weeks, ever since the two Meitev children of Silver Spring, Maryland were picked up by police for playing unattended in a park and delivered to Child Protective Services. Much online debate has ensued as to what constitutes responsible parenting and whether children should be allowed to roam on their own.

The biggest polarizing factor in this debate is “stranger danger.” Some parents think that every stranger is out to get their kid, while others seem to think “a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.” These may be two extremes, but they illustrate the drastically different perspectives from which parents approach raising their kids.

But are we missing the bigger picture?

Stranger danger hardly exists in the way it’s commonly portrayed by the media. Consider the following statistics, provided by Angie Schmitt for Streets Blog Network:

-- In 1999, the number of children kidnapped in stereotypical ‘stranger danger’ situations totaled 115, of a population of over 50 million U.S. children. Most kidnapped kids are victims of parental abductions.

-- In 2013, 207 children under age 13 were killed in pedestrian or bicycle deaths, of a total population of over 52 million children.

-- In 2013, 2,136 children under 15 died in automobile crashes, the leading cause of death for children of every age from 2 to 14 years old, killing 6 children every day in the U.S.

The greatest threat to children nowadays is vehicles, not would-be abductors.

It’s the awful and inconsiderate way in which we’ve designed our cities and towns – giving priority to cars while relegating pedestrians to the sides of fast-moving streets and corners of busy intersections – that has placed all children in danger and makes parents justifiably leery of sending kids out on their own.

Since having children of my own, I’ve become more aware of speed limits than ever before. In the small town of 12,000 people where I live, the in-town limit is 40 kph / 25 mph. Where stop signs are present, drivers generally respect that limit, but wherever there’s a thoroughfare running through town, cars race along at more than 60 kph / 37 mph – a speed that would kill any kid who ran out onto the road. Not all streets have sidewalks, either, which means I have to pick a route carefully when walking with my children or teaching them how to ride a bike.

As a parent, I resent this greatly. I want to instill healthy lifestyle habits in my kids, which includes walking and biking whenever possible, and leaving the car at home; and yet, there are times when I feel I’m risking our lives by heading out onto the street. Towns and cities should be prioritizing the safety of those who do not drive, whether because of age or by choice, but sadly that’s not the case.

Even once kids learn sufficient street smarts to survive the traffic, the problems persist. Urban sprawl is pushing development into the outskirts, where public transit is unreliable, there are no decent sidewalks, and it’s too far to walk or bike easily. This is terrible for kids, who lose what independence they might have had if a school were located downtown and must rely on parents and school buses to get around.

Rather than wasting breath arguing about the risk of potential abductions, it would be beneficial for a greater number of children if parents worked with municipal governments and mayors to create urban areas that are friendlier toward pedestrians, especially children, with their erratic and unpredictable walking and biking habits. This is better than telling parents they're irresponsible for letting their kids out of the house beyond sight.