Children across the U.S. are bidding farewell to summer vacation. Parents have printed that school supply list and checked it twice. Backpacks are stocked and eagerly awaiting their first jaunt through the school doors. But the preparations aren’t complete until the daily commute is made as safe as possible.

Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death for children in the U.S. In 2015, 663 children 12 and younger died in motor vehicle crashes and nearly 132,000 were also injured in those types of crashes. Whether they ride in cars or on buses, walk or bike to school, it is important to review safety tips and plan to take extra precautions to keep young children safe.

Passengers in cars

As children head into Kindergarten, they typically are outgrowing their forward-facing car seats – usually around 5 years old. When this occurs, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends buckling them in “a belt positioning booster seat until [adult] seat belts fit properly” and always in the back seat. These seats lift a child up so that the adult seat belt fits safely across the strong bony parts of the body and prevents the restraints from injuring soft vulnerable areas and possibly vital organs. The lap belt lays across the upper thighs and the shoulder belt lays across the chest. Using a booster seat reduces the risk of serious injury in 4- to 8-year-olds by 45 percent. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers additional tips including the following:

  • Your child should ride in a car safety seat with a harness as long as possible and then ride in a belt-positioning booster seat. Your child is ready for a booster seat when she has reached the top weight or height allowed for her seat, her shoulders are above the top harness slots, or her ears have reached the top of the seat.
  • Your child should ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle’s seat belt fits properly (usually when the child reaches about 4′ 9″ in height and is between 8 to 12 years of age). This means that the child is tall enough to sit against the vehicle seat back with her legs bent at the knees and feet hanging down and the shoulder belt lies across the middle of the chest and shoulder, not the neck or throat; the lap belt is low and snug across the thighs, not the stomach.
  • All children younger than 13 years of age should ride in the rear seat of vehicles. If you must drive more children than can fit in the rear seat (when carpooling, for example), move the front-seat passenger’s seat as far back as possible and have the child ride in a booster seat if the seat belts do not fit properly without it.

School bus riders

The National Safety Council explains that “school buses are the safest way for students to travel” but encourages parents and caregivers to educate their children about ways they can increase their safety. It advises:

Getting on the Bus:

  • When waiting for the bus, stay away from traffic and avoid roughhousing or other behavior that can lead to carelessness.
  • Do not stray onto the street, alleys or private property.
  • Line up away from the street or road as the bus approaches.
  • Wait until the bus has stopped and the door opens before approaching the bus.
  • Use the handrail when boarding.

Behavior on the Bus:

  • If seat belts are available on the bus, buckle up.
  • Don’t speak loudly or make loud noises that could distract the driver.
  • Stay in your seat.
  • Don’t put your head, arms or hands out the window.
  • Keep aisles clear of books and bags.
  • Get your belongings together before reaching your stop.
  • Wait for the bus to stop completely before getting up from your seat.

Getting Off the Bus:

  • Use the handrail when exiting.
  • If you have to cross in front of the bus, first walk at least 10 feet ahead until you can see the driver.
  • Make sure the driver can see you.
  • Wait for a signal from the driver before crossing.
  • When the driver signals, look left, right, then left again. Walk across the road and keep an eye out for sudden traffic changes.
  • If your vision is blocked, move to an area where you can see other drivers and they can see you.
  • Do not cross the center line of the road until the driver signals it is safe.
  • Stay away from the rear wheels of the bus at all times.

Walking to School

The AAP suggests children are typically ready to begin walking to school at 9 to 11 years of age. The group provides the following recommendations for students who will walk to nearby schools.

  • Make sure your child’s walk to school is a safe route with well-trained adult crossing guards at every intersection.
  • Identify other children in the neighborhood with whom your child can walk to school.  In neighborhoods with higher levels of traffic, consider organizing a “walking school bus,” in which an adult accompanies a group of neighborhood children walking to school.
  • Be realistic about your child’s pedestrian skills. Because small children are impulsive and less cautious around traffic, carefully consider whether or not your child is ready to walk to school without adult supervision. If the route home requires crossing busier streets than your child can reasonably do safely, have an adult, older friend or sibling escort them home.
  • If your children are young or are walking to a new school, walk with them or have another adult walk with them the first week or until you are sure they know the route and can do it safely. If your child will need to cross a street on the way to school, practice safe street crossing with them before the start of school.
  • Bright-colored clothing or a visibility device, like a vest or armband with reflectors, will make your child more visible to drivers.

Biking to school

Older students may also opt to ride their bikes to nearby schools if their neighborhood or community’s traffic allows them to do so safely. The following tips provided by the AAP will help keep bicyclists safe on their way to and from school.

  • Practice the bike route to school before the first day of school to make sure your child can manage it.
  • Always wear a bicycle helmet, no matter how short or long the ride.
  • Ride on the right, in the same direction as auto traffic and ride in bike lanes if they are present.
  • Use appropriate hand signals.
  • Respect traffic lights and stop signs.
  • Wear bright-colored clothing to increase visibility. White or light-colored clothing and reflective gear is especially important after dark.
  • Know the “rules of the road.”

Center for Disease Control and Prevention
The American Academy of Pediatrics
The National Safety Council

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