Cars before Kids: Automobility and the Illusion of School Traffic Safety

By Parusel, Sylvia; McLaren, Arlene Tigar | Canadian Review of Sociology, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Cars before Kids: Automobility and the Illusion of School Traffic Safety


Parusel, Sylvia, McLaren, Arlene Tigar, Canadian Review of Sociology


DESPITE THE INHERENT DANGER OF VEHICLE traffic, particularly for vulnerable populations, such as children, sociological and educational research has given scant attention to traffic safety. Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of injury and death of elementary school-aged children in westernized countries, such as Canada (Public Health Agency of Canada 2007). In 2005 alone in Canada, 79 children aged 5 to 14 were killed in motor vehicle collisions--52 were passengers, 24 were pedestrians (possibly including cyclists), and 3 were drivers (Transport Canada 2006). (1) As these figures illustrate, more children are killed regularly inside the car as passengers than outside cars. Even while one might assume that cars are "safe spaces" for children, they can be death traps. Far more children die from vehicle crashes (inside or outside vehicles) than the malicious intent of strangers--"stranger danger"--the focus of much media and public discourse (Valentine 1997). For instance, of the 33 homicide deaths in 2005 of Canadian children under the age of 12, one was committed by a stranger (Dauvergne and Li 2006). (2) Injury statistics of vehicle crashes reveal even further the vulnerability of children in the road environment. In 2005 approximately 11,000 children aged 5 to 14 were injured in vehicle crashes across Canada (Transport Canada 2006), (3) with 972 children aged 5 to 13 injured in British Columbia (BC) (Insurance Corporation of British Columbia [ICBC] 2006). The regularity of vehicle crashes suggests that, rather than "accidents," they are a systemic problem due to the automobile's dominance in transportation.

Yet, these injury figures underestimate vehicle traffic harm. For the latter statistic of 972 BC children injured in 2005, the ICBC used publicly available police-reported data. In contrast, figures that we requested from ICBC indicate that approximately 2,000 BC children aged 5 to 13 were injured (4) in motor vehicle collisions in 2005. Thus, the vehicle insurance-reported injury numbers were more than twice the police reported, publicly available injury figures for the same group in the same time period. Complex interagency relations and underreporting by police of low-severity reportable collisions contribute to systemic underrepresentation of the extent of harm that traffic poses to children and others. In addition, the statistics do not reveal the number of unreported collisions and injuries nor the near-misses (Adams 1993; Hillman, Adams, and Whitelegg 1990; Roberts, Smith, and Bryce 1995).

Given problems in statistical reporting, even in the case of the less ambiguous category of death, it is not surprising that global estimates of people killed annually on roads range from 1.2 to 5 million (Paterson 2007). The more widely reported conservative figure in itself is extraordinarily high--far beyond the deaths of 9/11 and recent wars--and occurring year after year. Whatever the "real" numbers of traffic danger, countless lives are tragically lost or threatened by auto-centered environments. In no other area of social life is this constant injury and loss of human life tolerated (Paterson 2007). As part of this cultural and political tolerance, sociology and other cognate disciplines have shown little interest in focusing on traffic safety, despite the fact that it raises intriguing theoretical, moral, political, and empirical questions.

In focusing on elementary school traffic safety, we are exploring questions about the reality of risk and the discursive constructions and practices of protecting children in auto-centered societies. The reality of traffic risk--which is no more evident than in the simple but telling gesture of a parent grabbing their child's hand at an intersection--is forever present in the street mobility of urban children in western and increasingly nonwestern environments. (5) This gesture also illustrates the politics of responsibility that is deeply embedded in automobilized societies that privilege cars before kids in which the organization of mobility entitles cars to dominate roads and constructs parents and children as responsible for their traffic safety. …

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