The Medical Minute: Get back to school...safely

September 03, 2003

By Susan Rzucidlo, M.S.N., R.N.
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

As the carefree days of summer give way to the hectic back-to-school season, parents and caregivers should take time out to teach and review important safety guidelines with children. When fall approaches and children return to school, it's important for parents and children to go over basic safety tips together to help ensure a safe, enjoyable start to the school year for everyone.

The Pediatric Trauma Prevention program at Penn State Children's Hospital offers a few guidelines to help parents and caregivers keep kids safe on their way to and from school:

School bus safety. About 23.5 million students ride school buses daily. Although this is one of the safest ways to travel to and from school, injuries do occur. Many injuries happen when children are boarding or exiting the bus. A blind spot extends about 10 feet in front of the bus, obstructing the driver's view. Children are not aware of this blind spot and might mistakenly believe that if they can see the bus, the bus driver can see them. Teach children to be attentive around a school bus, or any motor vehicle for that matter, and encourage them to obey the bus driver's rules for riding and boarding.

Waiting for the bus. A child's behavior at the bus stop is a very important aspect of school bus safety. Children should remember a few simple safety tips while waiting for the bus. Arrive at the stop at least five minutes before the bus arrives. Stay out of the street and avoid horseplay, which can lead to accidents. Always wait for parents on the same side of the street as the school bus loading/unloading zone, and be sure to cross the street at least 10 feet (or 10 giant steps) in front of the bus.

Boarding and leaving the bus. When boarding or leaving the bus, children should always walk in a single file line and use the handrail to avoid falls. When excited children run or jump onto or off of the school bus, especially if they do it two or three kids at a time, it's a recipe for injury.

Children should wait until the bus comes to a complete stop before exiting and unless it's a legitimate emergency, they should always exit from the front of the bus. Make sure kids are aware of the driver's blind spot (10 feet in front of the bus) when walking away from the bus. When it comes to younger children, parents should also be careful to remove loose drawstrings or ties on jackets and sweatshirts, and replace them with Velcro, snaps or buttons. Loose drawstrings or book bags can snag on bus handrails. Finally, ask the bus driver for help if anything is dropped while entering or exiting the bus.

While on the bus, children should remain seated at all times and keep the aisles clear. Do not throw objects, shout or distract the driver unnecessarily, and keep heads and arms inside the bus at all times.

Walking to school. Pedestrian injuries are the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among children ages 5 to 14, behind motor-vehicle crashes. Children under 10 should never cross the street alone. Parents play an important role in keeping "walkers" safe. It's important to choose the safest route to school and walk it with children. Look for the most direct route with the fewest street crossings. Walk the route with children until they demonstrate traffic safety awareness. Insist they take the same route every day and avoid shortcuts.

Teach children to recognize and obey all traffic signals and markings. A flashing "walk" sign is not an automatic "go" signal. It means a pedestrian has permission to cross, but must first stop and look both ways for cars. Make sure children look in all directions before crossing the street. Teach them to stop at the curb or edge of the road, and to look left, right and left again for traffic before and while crossing the street.

Teach children not to enter the street from between parked cars or from behind bushes or shrubs. Darting into the street accounts for the majority of child pedestrian fatalities. Children should cross the street at a corner or crosswalk. Make sure children allow plenty of time to cross. Teach them to walk, not run, across intersections and encourage them to listen to adult crossing guards or safety patrols at monitored intersections.

Warn children to be extra alert in bad weather. Visibility might be poor and motorists might not be able to see them or stop quickly. Also, demonstrate proper pedestrian safety by being a good role model. Parents, caregivers and older peers should set good examples for younger children. Children need you to not only tell them, but also show them how to be safe pedestrians. If there are older children in your home or neighborhood, express to them how important it is to be good role models.

Riding bikes to school. Bicycle riding is a favorite pastime of children. More than 27 million children ages 5 to 14 ride bicycles. Whether out of necessity or for fun, many of these children choose to ride their bikes to school. Unfortunately, bicycles are associated with more childhood injuries than any other consumer product except the automobile. To keep children safe, Penn State Children's Hospital offers a few safety tips for children riding bicycles to school.

Insist that children wear bike helmets at all times when bicycling. Head injury is the leading cause of death in bike crashes. Head injuries account for more than 60 percent of bicycle-related deaths, more than two-thirds of bicycle-related hospital admissions and about one-third of hospital emergency room visits for bicycling injuries. Bike helmets have been shown to reduce the risk of head injury by as much as 85 percent and the risk of brain injury by as much as 88 percent. Purchase a bike helmet that meets federal safety standards or those developed by ANSI, Snell or ASTM for each child and make sure that it is worn correctly every time the child rides his or her bike.

Children who ride bikes to school should be taught to follow the rules of the road that apply to all vehicles. Ride on the right side of the road, with traffic, not against traffic; use appropriate hand signals; respect traffic signals; stop at all intersections, marked and unmarked; and stop and look left, right and left again before entering or crossing the street. Be sure to plan a safe cycling route with children and ride it with them. Remember, a safe cycling route to school may not be the same as a safe walking route. Streets with a steady flow of fast-moving traffic are not appropriate for young cyclists with limited traffic experience.

Make sure your child's school provides cyclists with "safe areas." Bike racks should be placed in areas where there are few motor vehicles and pedestrians. Avoid drop-off and pick-up zones in school parking lots.

Driving children to school. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among children ages 14 and under. Seventy-five percent of motor vehicle crashes occur within 25 miles of home. In addition, 60 percent of crashes occur on roads with posted speed limits of 40 mph or less. Make sure kids remain buckled up until they exit the vehicle. Children who have outgrown a convertible car seat should graduate to a booster seat. Pennsylvania law requires that children under 8 years of age be restrained when traveling in a passenger vehicle.

Never put loose or heavy objects in the passenger area of the car that could injure someone if you stopped suddenly or crashed. Allow extra time in the driver's schedule. People sometimes drive too fast when they're late. Arrange to pick up children at a safe spot away from the congestion of traffic around the school and drop off children in a safe location so that they do not have to cross the street. Always make sure they enter and leave the car on the curb side.

Getting your children in a back-to-school mindset means thinking about a lot of things, from setting new schedules to buying new school clothes and supplies. It can be a lot for any parent. However, few things are more important than your child's safety. Focusing on these important safety guidelines and reviewing them every year with your children can help keep the back-to-school season a safe one.

More information on child safety can be found online at http://www.hmc.psu.edu/pediatrictrauma/injury

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Last Updated March 20, 2009