Parental Traffic Safeguarding at School Sites: Unequal Risks and Responsibilities

By McLaren, Arlene Tigar; Parusel, Sylvia | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Parental Traffic Safeguarding at School Sites: Unequal Risks and Responsibilities


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


INTRODUCTION

Motor vehicle collisions are a leading cause of childhood death and injury in heavily motorized countries (Oliver and Kohen 2009). (2) In Canada in 2007 alone, 99 children aged 0-14 died in collisions and 626 were seriously injured (Transport Canada 2010). (3) Since official statistics include neither unreported collisions and injuries nor near misses, however, the figures fail to reflect the full extent to which motorized traffic threatens children's safety (Hillman et al. 1990; Roberts et al. 1995). Whether children are inside or outside a motor vehicle, the threat to them of traffic in car-saturated streets is almost limitless, requiring parents' (or guardians') intense attention, organization, and vigilance (Parusel and McLaren 2010).

In North American urban environments, children's spatial mobility largely takes place within an automobility system dominated by the private motor vehicle. From the inception of the automobile, traffic safety regimes have sought to protect children by removing them from streets with the purpose of promoting the speed and movement of motor vehicle traffic over the rights of pedestrians (Norton 2008). Though death and injury rates on the roads have generally declined in westernized countries during the past few decades as car ownership and kilometres traveled have risen, the fact remains that road traffic is inherently dangerous (Wegman 2007). According to Adams (1993), roads have not become safer; instead, because parents recognize them as so dangerous, they compensate on behalf of their children by removing them from traffic risks. Despite this insight, scholars have paid remarkably little attention to parents' everyday traffic safety practices.

This article addresses these issues by comparing parental traffic safeguarding at two public elementary schools in Vancouver, British Columbia. Based primarily on in-depth, qualitative interviews, this study explores the ways in which parents (especially mothers) practice traffic safeguarding at three sites: school streetscapes, school entrances, and school traffic safety volunteerism. Utilizing automobility and feminist theories, we argue that such safeguarding is a complex and variegated phenomenon, which involves unequal risks and responsibilities in specific places. We analyze how these risks and responsibilities are shaped by local material conditions of actual threats to children's traffic safety, within dynamic social and spatial contexts, mediated by parents' cultural and experiential interpretations that accommodate to and resist the automobility system. Our analysis also illustrates the ways in which parental traffic safeguarding is key to understanding automobility and its illusion of safety, and how, conversely, this system shapes parenting by constituting traffic safeguarding as part of domestic labour.

The first section introduces automobility and feminist theories and research that inform this paper. The second section discusses the qualitative methods and comparative social and automobilized contexts of the study. The third section explores three traffic sites that illustrate the similarities and differences in parental traffic safety practices within the context of specific urban environments and social inequalities. The fourth section provides some conclusions.

AUTOMOBILITY, TRAFFIC SAFETY AND SOCIAL INEQUALITY

The theoretical interests of this article draw from the "new mobilities" paradigm. This approach highlights movement as transformative of identities and their spatial, temporal, and sociopolitical contexts and is inherently interdisciplinary in that "the very idea of movement implies both a sociological imagination for spatial matters and a geographic sensitivity to understanding social and cultural processes of movement" (Vannini 2010:112). In this paradigm, streets are not merely spaces of circulation nor "non-places." Instead, they are complex sites of social interaction (Jensen 2009), including traffic safeguarding. …

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