Study claims children cannot judge speeds above 20mph

12.28 | 30 November 2010 | | 5 comments

Primary school children cannot accurately judge the speed of vehicles travelling faster than 20mph, according to a study carried out by researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The researchers measured the perceptual acuity of more than 100 children in primary schools, and calculated the speed of approach that they could reliably detect. The results suggest that while adult pedestrians can make accurate judgements for vehicles travelling up to 50mph, those of primary school age become unreliable once the approach speed goes above 20mph, if the car is five seconds away.

Professor John Wann, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, said: “This is not a matter of children not paying attention, but a problem related to low-level visual detection mechanisms, so even when children are paying very close attention they may fail to detect a fast approaching vehicle.”

The researchers are now looking at the potential for using virtual reality systems to make children more aware of the errors that may occur, but Professor Wann stresses that the simplest solution lies in traffic regulation.

Professor Wann added: “These findings provide strong evidence that children may make risky crossing judgements when vehicles are travelling at 30 or 40mph. In addition they are more likely to step in front of the faster vehicles, which therefore increases the risk fatality.

“Travelling one mile through a residential area at 20mph versus 30mph will only add 60 seconds to your journey time – we encourage drivers to take a minute and save a child’s life”.

The study, which is published in the international journal Psychological Science, is part of a larger project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council, to understand the perceptual factors than can lead to pedestrian accidents.

Click here to read the full Royal Holloway University of London report.


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    I’ll stick with the professor of psychology’s assessment – speed is precisely the issue. Children don’t think the same as geriatric motorcyclists! Give credit where it’s due. Researchers are researching while you’re watching the Simpsons……

    Sharon Sydney
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    Just to correct Derek on his maths – to travel 1 mile at 30mph takes 2 minutes, at 20mph it takes 3 minutes. The difference is 1 minute. I won’t comment directly on his other issues of skepticism. We all have our personal views on why some accidents happen, but I can assure Derek that there isn’t a hidden agenda here, we are interested in finding out why, even when drivers/children do look (which they normally do) they still make mistakes. We have tested well over 500 road users and we ALL make misjudgements. It’s not just a case of “stop-look and listen”. I’m happy to demonstrate to anyone who wants to visit us at RHUL.

    Prof John Wann
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    I have two daughters, the youngest has just started secondary school this past September. Prior to this, I accompanied her by bicycle to school and home each and every day. It will of course be different for many, with our secondary school being but two blocks away we have no qualms about her walking there. But the primary was farther away, and involved crossing two busy major roads.

    Having said that, as a child myself I had just two weeks of being accompanied from the age of five (primarily because I did not want to go!). After that, I was on my own, though only housing estate roads in North London to negotiate and with a ‘Lolly-Pop’ man by the school. Whilst the density of traffic has changed on major roads, neither the density or speeds have changed much on the minor ones, bar the odd idiot of course, but that was ever the way – we were taught never to run, and always look both ways.

    Nowadays the greater majority of primary school children are accompanied to school, whether it be by Mum’s ‘taxi’, cycled or walked, from the age of five it has become the norm not to let youngsters out alone. From seven on may be different, and again individual circumstances may dictate actions and practices adopted. Judging by the way some young parents cross roads with their children in tow, does make me wonder if some research into their behaviour might be needed. As role models, some fail dismally.

    Derek, St Albans.
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    ‘Nobody would wish primary school children to be crossing roads unattended’ Really? I wonder if Derek knows how old primary school children get to be before they become secondary school children? I’m not sure we want a world where 10 year olds shouldn’t cross the road without an accompanying adult.

    Mike Mounfield, Birmingham
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    Professor Wann correctly points out that travelling at 20mph over one mile distant will take just 60 seconds longer than the same distance at 30mph. May this non-professorial mortal point out that this represents an increased journey time of 50% longer – 3 minutes, as opposed to 2.

    But this should not deter drivers from driving at a lower speed through residential areas. However, residential areas are often also busy thoroughfares, and where primary school children are concerned, the accompaniment of an adult is not just beneficial, it is necessary. Did this study also determine just how accurate the children were at perceiving the speeds of vehicles travelling at LOWER than 20mph – and if so, how accurate were they? How often we hear only part of a story to support a new study/initiative.

    Why should we be overly concerned about the perceptibility of primary school children and vehicle speeds? Clearly it would be in their favour to be able to be more perceptive, but mainly on the location and direction of a vehicle in relationship to themselves; where they should be crossing, and less on the actual speed. More importantly, they should be made aware of basic safe road crossing practices and designated crossing places. They are after all, primary school children – they are in the cusp of education, they are learning all the time, just as a science student in his first year will not be able to calculate complicated formulae on the gravity and trajectory of distant planets around the Solar system or any other such calculations requiring further, and extended knowledge through ongoing tuition and experience.

    Nobody would wish primary school children to be crossing roads unattended, whether they are able to perceive vehicle speeds accurately or not. What precise speed a vehicle is travelling at is secondary to judging how far it will travel between two points, and how the second point relates to the speed of walking across in front of it safely or not. A great many adults are incapable of doing so, but as their defence system, it is the vehicle or the driver who is the first and only guilty partner in any ‘event’. It is not necessarily so.

    A report made by TfL of accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians showed that in over 80% of the cases, the pedestrian stepped off the kerb into the road, neither looking before, or observing the traffic direction. “Stop – Look – And Listen” was the old adage. Today listening may seem futile with constant traffic noise, and with the pressure for quiet electric cars increasing, there is even more need to emphasise the “Stop and Look” elements.

    Road safety is indeed an attitude of mind. If children had ‘on board radar’ to tell them what speed a vehicle was travelling at before crossing a road, would they be able to accurately calculate their own trajectory and speed in avoiding an impact? I very much doubt it. Such data is of scientific and academic interest, road safety is so much simpler than that. Our mistakes are in overcomplicating a simplicity.

    The report goes on to suggest the Pigeons and other animals have a low level detection system which might be worth research. Has Professor Wann never seen squashed animals and Pigeons on our roads? The details also include research into why motorcyclists are involved in ‘Looked, but did not see’ accidents caused by other road users. The answers are all readily available. Ask any experienced motorcyclist – myself being one, with 47yrs including 25 as a courier in central London. I fancy the key element in such research is hidden in the word “worth”, i.e., how much grant funding may be available.

    Oh dear.

    Derek, St Albans.
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