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Interview With An Expert

Interview with an expert: passing on expertise and practicing again and again – this makes children capable of handling road traffic!

Traffic psychologist and educationalist, Prof. Maria Limbourg, has been dealing with child behavior in traffic for many years now, as well as with the question of how the most vulnerable road users can better protect themselves. In addition to working together with national institutions such as the Deutsche Verkehrswacht, she is also the head of the Mobility and Traffic Working Group in the Department of Pedagogy at the University of Duisburg-Essen, as well as supports traffic education projects in South America.

MobileKids: Professor Limbourg, is there a rule of thumb as to the age from which one can let a child out onto the streets alone?

Prof. Limbourg: Most of the skills which a person requires in order to stay safe in traffic are not fully developed until the age of eight. Obviously there are variations here and not all skills of a child will be fully developed by this time, but at this age children more or less know what is dangerous, how they should behave and how to roughly estimate the speed and distance of vehicles. However, this is only the case if people have already practiced such things with them, e.g., in a role play in which parents simply let their pre-school child guide them through traffic and explain basic rules. However, if a seven-year-old child is still only being driven everywhere, they will have missed out on a learning process lasting many years. If they are then let out onto the streets all of a sudden, it just won't work.

Many parents want to protect their children from the dangers of traffic, and that is precisely the reason why they drive them to school or to the playground...

However, by doing so, they are robbing their children of the opportunity to learn how to behave appropriately. Their children miss out on many experiences which one needs, in road traffic in particular. Parents should therefore bear this piece of advice in mind: As long as you cannot send your children out on their own, accompany them on foot! If you don't have enough time for this on a daily basis, you can look for alternatives. For example, some schools have what is known as a "walking bus". Children are brought together in groups (the school generally organizes this), and collection chains are then formed. For example, the children who live furthest away collect the children who live nearest to them. Two parents accompany them (parents take turns in this) which means that the adults only have to bring the children to school once a week. The children are brought to school in groups, and thus learn how to behave in road traffic. At some point, when it is safe enough, the trained groups can head off to school on their own!

If the children are then being driven somewhere after all, the main thing is that they are buckled up securely. And a child seat is absolutely essential, isn't it?

The most crucial thing here is to use the right safety systems. While still in kindergarten, most children are generally well secured. However, when they start school, the situation changes. Many parents just use the adult seatbelt for their children instead of using a booster seat which is designed to prevent the child from getting strangled by the normal belt. At times, the child is not even secured at all, either due to negligence or because it is too inconvenient to unfasten the child's schoolbag again. But this can cause even minor accidents to end badly.

No doubt, we all remember our own parents' words: take care on the street! But how effective are such constant reminders?

Such things generally do not work because children are easily distracted and then their brain will have switched off. Frequent training is important, how to behave correctly in road traffic must become like second nature to a person. When driving, we have also automated many processes such as switching gears, braking, indicating left and right, and do not have to think constantly where third gear is. If one has sat behind the steering wheel often enough, this comes of its own accord. It is the same with children. They learn how to behave correctly through repetition and practice. This leaves their brain free and yet they will still come to a standstill at the curb on time.

Parents are often accused of wrapping their children in cotton wool nowadays...

Some parents really are overprotective. One shouldn't frighten children since that only reduces their willingness and ability to learn. Other mothers and fathers, by contrast, give their children too much independence too early on. What is important is that children develop self-confidence and expertise so that they can handle unpredictable situations and not react without thinking. Let's assume that the traffic lights have broken down or that recently started roadwork is blocking the usual route to school: these are the things that parents must prepare their children for and explain to them what to do in such a case. An example would be to ask someone for help with crossing the street safely. Naturally, one must discuss with the child what sort of person to ask - such as a young mother who has a child herself. One could also agree with  the child that he or she simply comes back home and asks one of his parents to come with him on that day

Road safety education has been taught in schools here in Germany for a long time now. How has the type of road safety training changed as well as the material covered?

Up until only a few years ago, this training and practicing took place indoors. Now people have realized how important training in real-life traffic is, i.e. out on the streets which the children will really be using later on, whether they're going somewhere by foot or by bike. However, it is naturally not enough if the school and police accompany children onto the street two or three times in order to make a child traffic-competent. Road safety education only achieves its goal if parents are also involved, if they act on these issues and train their children themselves to behave correctly in road traffic. Constant practice really does make sense; this is borne out of the number of accidents, a figure which is continuously falling.

You spend a lot of time in South America and have helped communities to make the streets safer for children. Do you have a lot to do there?

In many South American countries, the situation is similar to what it was like here in the 1970s when the number of road deaths had reached its highest point. There is very little assistance provided for crossing streets, car drivers do not obey the rules and road safety education in schools still has a long way to go. Chile is the best in this regard, while the situation is very problematic in other countries.

Road safety is obviously connected with a country's stage of development, isn't it?

Yes, at the start of widespread motorization, it is initially like being in the jungle, rules have to be introduced and everyone must get used to them. After many years, traffic then becomes more civilized. Most road deaths today do not occur in countries which have had cars for a long time and are heavily motorized, but in developing countries instead. In such countries, a balance must first be struck between car drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and moped users. Paying attention to each other and mutual respect in road traffic must first of all grow in a society, but this has also occurred in all highly-industrialized countries of the world today.