Research: Safety

Research reports safety as a commonly identified barrier to walking or bicycling to school. The literature on bicycle and pedestrian safety suggests that as safety increases, so does participation in active travel.

Aside from distance to school, safety is most connected to the decision to participate in physical activity and walk or bike to school (Ross et al., 2017; Fitch et al., 2016; Smith et al., 2015). Children are less likely to walk when they feel unsafe (Dessing et al., 2016; Topmiller et al., 2015). In addition, parents’ perceptions of the safety of the route to school, including street crossings, adequate sidewalks, and traffic speed and volume (Huertas-Delgado et al., 2017; Henne et al., 2014; Carlson et al., 2014), have been connected with children’s physical activity and participation in active transportation to school (Ward et al., 2015; Ding et al., 2011). Residents of low-income neighborhoods often have more exposure to unsafe road conditions, yet low-income children are twice as likely to walk to school as children from higher-income families (Hwang et al., 2017; McAndrews et al., 2017; Quitsberg et al., 2017; Maciag, 2014), which could mean these children are exposed to greater risk. Infrastructure improvements have been connected with reduced injuries and increased active transportation (Quitsberg et al., 2017; Lusk et al., 2017; Aldred, 2016; Nicholson et al., 2014; Ragland et al., 2014). Beyond avoiding injury from traffic collisions, safety also includes protection of personal safety from violence and crime, which has also been connected with physical activity (Brown, 2016; Cosma et al., 2015; Rader et al., 2014).

Safe Routes to School programs build capacity for walking and biking to school through engineering, environmental, educational, and engagement strategies, including school area speed limits and traffic control, biking and walking facilities, student education for pedestrian and bicyclist safety, and community mobilization. This section highlights research demonstrating the influence of safety from traffic and crime/violence on walking and biking.


  • According to the CDC, transportation-related injuries account for 66% of unintentional death and 15% of nonfatal injury among children ages 0-19 from 2000-2006 (Borse et al., 2009)
  • In 2013, 5% of pedestrian traffic fatalities and 15% of pedestrian traffic injuries were among children; 7% of cyclist traffic fatalities and 11% of cyclist injuries were among children (NHTSA, 2013)
  • After distance, parents reported safety-related concerns as four of the top five factors affecting children’s participation in walking or biking (Zhou et al., 2009):
    • Traffic speed along route (53.7%)
    • Traffic amount along route (51.3%)
    • Violence or crime (42.1%)
    • Intersection safety (38.2%)
  • Factors related to improved safety could change a parents’ decision to allow a child to walk or bike to school, including safety of intersections and crossings (22.0%) and presence of an adult co-walker (17.5%) (Zhou et al., 2009).
  • Besides parental perceptions of safety, children’s active commuting to school is impacted by the built environment, distance to/from school, school policies that favor active commuting (including education and engagement programs), the presence of crossing guards near schools, the presence of bicycle racks at schools (Sirard et al., 2015; Dessing et al., 2016; Everett et al., 2016; Huertas-Delgado et al., 2017).
  • Girls may be twice as likely to walk or bike to school if they perceive their neighborhood as safe, as reported in a study of 890 eighth-grade students (Voorhees et al., 2010)
  • Based on data from California, rates of pedestrian injury were four times higher in low-income neighborhoods (Chakravathy et al., 2010). Across the globe, people of color and people with lower incomes are disproportionately at risk of being killed or injured as pedestrians (McAndrews et al., 2017).
  • In a cross-sectional study in Canada, 68% of students in grades 6-10 identified worrying about being bullied or attacked on the way to school as a barrier to walking or biking; this barrier was more commonly identified among girls (73.5%) and younger students grade 8 or below (74.1%) (Cosma et al., 2015)
  • A study in New York City found a 33 percent decline in overall pedestrian injury among school children (including a 44 percent decline during school travel times) in areas where federally funded Safe Routes to School projects were implemented, compared with areas without Safe Routes to School interventions, where the injury rate remained almost unchanged (DiMaggio and Li, 2013).
  • There is a strong correlation between traffic calming measures (such as intersection density, medians/dividers, low mobility streets) and increased elementary school children walking and biking to school (Nicholson et al., 2014). Best practices for improving pedestrian safety around schools include building a low-speed road environment over two miles away from highways with less car-centric commercial use and more sidewalk coverage, especially around transit stops (Yu et al., 2016).
  • A study of bicycle access and usage among Blacks and Hispanics in New Jersey found that the top five barriers to bicycling are (Brown, 2016):
    • Fear of traffic collision
    • Fear of robbery and assault
    • Pavement condition
    • Fear of being stranded with broken bike
    • Fear of police harassment and racial profiling
  • Most studies of bicycling safety are limited to studies of crash counts and bicyclist injuries and fatalities, but an innovative study in the United Kingdom of cycling near misses underscores the need to expand how we think and talk about bicycling safety. The study shows that (Aldred, 2016):
    • Near misses—incidents that don’t result in injuries but nonetheless are scary and stressful—are an everyday experience for cyclists in the UK
    • Bicycling speed is the main factor affecting near miss rates
    • Women, who tend to bike more slowly than men do, have higher near miss rates
  • Globally, people with lower incomes and people of color are disproportionately at risk of being injured or killed in motor vehicle crashes, especially as pedestrians (McAndrews et al., 2017).
  • There is a documented Safety in Numbers phenomenon, whereby as the number of pedestrians increases, so does pedestrian safety (Murphy et al., 2017). However, safety in numbers for bicyclists may be offset by high traffic volumes (Aldred, 2016).
  • A study in Seattle also shows that people who walk more are more aware of safer walking routes and moderate their risk of being hit by a car (Quitsberg et al., 2017).

Research: Safety

Report, Research
Child Pedestrian Safety Education
Applying Learning and Developmental Theories to Develop Safe Street-Crossing Behavior

This report scientifically reviews the literature on child pedestrian education and discusses possible child pedestrian safety programs that could be more effective in keeping child pedestrians safe.

A Review of Evidence-Based Traffic Engineering Measures Designed to Reduce Pedestrian-Motor Vehicle Crashes

This review uses the Transportation Research Information Services database to identify studies on engineering to reduce speed, separate pedestrians from vehicles, and increase visibility of pedestrians.

Illinois Drivers Must Stop for Pedestrian Law: Observational Study of Motorists’ Compliance

Key Takeaway: Driver compliance with a state law to yield to pedestrians was highest at crosswalks with more safety features.

Journal Article, Research
Impact of State Laws on Walking and Biking to School

In a March 2012 research brief, Impact of State Laws on Walking and Bicycling to School, Active Living Research was the first to examine the impact of state laws on walking and bicycling to school among a national sample of elementary schools in the United States.

Fact Sheet, Research
Promoting Physical Activity through the Shared Use of School and Community Resources

This brief summarizes research on community access to school sport and recreation facilities outside of school hours, as well as studies that examine the shared use of school facilities and programs with other community groups or agencies. 

Journal Article, Report, Research
Research Brief
Impact of the Walking School Bus Program on Children's Pedestrian Safety Behaviors

A March 2012 research brief by Active Living Research, Impact of the Walking School Bus Program on Children’s Pedestrian Safety Behaviors, reported that parents listed their children’s safety as one of the top concerns regarding walking to school, and that improving safety may lead more parents to allow their children to walk to school. 

Journal Article, Fact Sheet, Research
States Vary in Safe Routes to School Spending

The federal Safe Routes to School program provides funds to support programs in each state to ensure that it is safe and easy for children to walk and bicycle to school.