Health boards and councils can work together to make the journey to school safer and more enjoyable, says Avril Blaney
It is no surprise that parents are reluctant to allow their children to walk or cycle to school, despite plans to target the school run under the Government's proposals to reduce car use and traffic congestion at peak times.
Road accidents are the main cause of death among school-age children and the UK fatality rate, although on the decrease, is 31 per cent higher than the European Union average. The accident risk for children is twice as high within half a kilometre from the school as elsewhere. The increasing number of parents driving their children to school can only exacerbate this problem. But before parents allow their children to walk or cycle they will want assurances on safety.
A Safer and Active Routes to School project was established at Holyrood Secondary in 1996 by Greater Glasgow Health Board and funded by the Health Education Board for Scotland. The project aimed to identify the major risks and barriers which prevented pupils walking and cycling to school and how these could be reduced. The project team surveyed all S1 and S3 pupils, all staff and one in 10 parents.
The results showed that on a typical day 44 per cent of pupils walked in the main part of their journey to school, 22 per cent travelled by train, 18 per cent by bus and 15 per cent by car. Fewer than 2 per cent cycled. Pupils, parents and staff identified common hazards experienced en route to school: traffic danger on main roads near the school, double parking outside the school, the location of a poorly sited pelican crossing, drivers travelling too fast and pupils failing to cross roads in a safe manner.
The key barriers to cycling identified by pupils and parents were lack of safe bike parking, distance to school and busy road. The main barriers to walking were distance, lack of time and the fact that "friends don't walk".
An inter-agency school group and pupil action group have been formed to address the issues raised. So far they have achieved funding for two "on road" safer cycle routes leading to the school and secure parking for 40 bicycles. As part of Glasgow's route action plans, road closures have been completed and a pelican crossing upgraded, which is reducing some of the traffic problem directly outside the school. The local train station has introduced further safety improvements.
The pupil action group has produced a logo and a regular newsletter, which raise awareness of the project and the survey results. Postcards have been designed to tackle the issue of double parking and pupils not wearing seat belts. These have won a national road safety award. The postcards will be distributed to schools across the city. Some pupils will attend a residential weekend to develop their peer education skills in road safety.
Once safety improvements are in place the school action groups will establish promotional campaigns to encourage pupils and staff to walk or cycle part or all of the way to school.
Initial target groups will be the 35 per cent of S1 and S2 pupils who live two kilometres or less from the school but who do not currently walk or cycle to school. Twenty-four per cent of pupils indicated that they would contemplate becoming "active commuters" on a regular basis.
Clearly, safety improvements are required before parents will abandon the "school run" and encourage children to go to school "under their own steam". By prioritising pedestrian and cycle use on roads surrounding schools and increasing the number of safer and active routes there is significant scope for improving health and safety.
As levels of asthma and respiratory disorders increase and concerns rise over child obesity levels and reduced participation in physical activity action on these issues by local authorities and health boards will become more important. The Holyrood project offers a model which can inform other schools and local authorities looking to establish similar schemes.
Avril Blaney is programmes manager in the health promotion department of Greater Glasgow Health Board.