How Do You Educate Kids on Street Safety When Drivers Are Dangerous?

Last week, DOT rolled out a new pedestrian safety video for its school-based education programs. Set to a hip-hop beat, the four-minute video is aimed squarely at young New Yorkers. It dissects three scenarios to educate kids about safely navigating city streets. But you’ll notice that in two of the scenarios, it’s drivers who are breaking the law.

The first scenario features a girl in the crosswalk who looks up from her phone to see a turning driver about to hit her. She’s then admonished to look before stepping off the curb and put her phone away. A second scenario shows two young kids in the crosswalk who spot a driver quickly approaching the stop sign and stopping too close to them in the crosswalk. The video advises the children to look before crossing and make eye contact with the driver and wave at her. In neither example does the video say that drivers have a legal or moral obligation to yield to pedestrians.

Kim Wiley-Schwartz, DOT’s assistant commissioner for education and outreach, said the program tries to give students traffic safety basics that acknowledge that not everyone on New York City’s streets plays by the rules. “This is how kids get killed and injured,” she said. “Kids are expecting all drivers to stop.”

Similar to DOT’s Safety City course, the first two scenarios teach that pedestrians have to do more than obey the law to stay safe on NYC streets. “We’re trying to look at the realities of New York. The most important thing we can teach children is to look for turning vehicles,” Wiley-Schwartz said. “You cannot count on drivers yielding to you, even though that’s the law.”

Keep watching, though, and the video’s focus on self-preservation over adherence to the law takes a different flavor in its third example. A young boy hops on his skateboard between two parked cars and rides into the street. A driver stops short, before the video freezes and advises children to stop between the parked cars before entering the street, look before crossing, and to cross when it’s clear. It never says that mid-block crossings are against the law.

Wiley-Schwartz, who used to work on livable streets education at OpenPlans, Streetsblog’s parent organization, says this was intentional. DOT used a mid-block crossing as an example alongside the scenarios with kids in the crosswalk because it’s a common behavior. “If you have to cross mid-block, you should know [how],” she said. “The old way of pedestrian education was to say, ‘Wait for a walk signal and cross with the walk sign.’ That’s just not real education that’s going to help them.”

A longer version of the video, developed by the public-private Safe Streets Fund and funded in part by Toyota, is part of the in-class curriculum DOT brings to schools. Wiley-Schwartz said she expects fourth, fifth, and sixth-graders at nearly 250 schools to see the video this year. The program also includes education for teachers. “We don’t want them to tell [the kids] to look left, right, then left again,” Wiley-Schwartz said. “We want them to have real conversations with kids about what they can do to protect themselves.”

In addition to separate education efforts targeted at adults, the youth education program includes materials for parents [PDF]. “It’s a shared responsibility,” Wiley-Schwartz said. “The work has to get done with drivers. That is where the work has to come.”

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    It would be nice if the video told kids what to look for and where. Looking left and right and left again ignores the two most likely sources of a car when crossing with the signal at an intersection, at the 7pm position (basically behind the pedestrian) of a car about to turn right and at the 11pm position of a car making a left turn across your crosswalk.

    Cars come from the left or right when crossing mid block or when crossing against the signal.

  • Hilda

    These are exactly the things I teach my kids about crossing the street. I also share the wisdom that drivers will be more likely to NOT slow down for them, but that when they do, it deserves a smile and/or a wave.
    The video shows drivers behaving badly (keep looking!) and that the kids need to expect that. But simple tricks, without harping on ‘Don’t!’ all the time is the best way to get kids to remember.
    Plus these kids are having fun, looking fantastic with their moves, swinging their heads to ‘check’. It is not teaching kids to ‘follow the rules for your own safety’, it is out there to teach kids to be smart.
    We need (at least) one for all the drivers out there now. I want to see a bunch of briefcase holders and construction workers and kids and tourists dancing through a crosswalk because the driver STOPPED at the no cross bar instead of the crossing.
    The video is smart, funky, and it looks like my Brooklyn, my NYC. Well done DOT. Keep ’em coming.

  • R

    “The first scenario features a girl in the crosswalk who looks up from her phone to see a turning driver about to hit her. She’s then admonished to look before stepping off the curb and put her phone away.”

    The only problem with this example is that it appears that the driver comes speeding around the corner long after the girl steps off the curb. So even if the example had shown her looking up with her phone away, she would still have been hit. I agree with the message that kids need to be aware, but it almost seems as if there’s nothing any person, young or old, could do in that situation to avoid being injured or killed.

    The part about mid-block crossing is great, however. It’s nice that we’ve moved away from the “Cross at the green, not in between” messaging of the past.

  • ocschwar

    The DOT video is missing a crucial factor: some kids cannot eyeball the speed of a moving car correctly. No known method exists for getting kids to acquire this skill. It just happens some time around age 10. If you want your city to be safe for kids, you have to curb sociopathic drivers.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Unless drivers can see you over cars at the corner, you should cross in the middle of the block. And only when there are no cars as far as the eye can see.

    Not at the green, where you will run down from behind by those making turns.

  • Eileen

    “Everybody on the streets deserves respect”? Even drivers who are driving recklessly? Please. It’s good to educate children about how to protect themselves from ne’er do wells, but the “education” should take the same tone toward reckless drivers as we take toward pedophiles — protect yourself child, because there are too many drivers out there who do not care enough about your life or rights, and cars are inherently dangerous machines. And when you see a bad driver, report it to ____. But if you fund an “educational” campaign with an auto company’s money, you’re not likely to get anything beyond meaningless corporate PR.

  • It is nice that the messaging around mid-block crossing has adapted to reality, but it will be more meaningful if the actual law does the same. Laws that criminalize normal, harmless behavior like (how is this even possible?) crossing the street actively worsen our lives. And cost nothing to fix!

    It’s hard to take New York government seriously when bad laws like this persist for generations.

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