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A Walk on the Safe Side

'Walk to School Day' to promote pedestrian safety, fitness

SUNDAY, Sept. 30, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Millions of parents, children and community leaders in the United States and 19 other countries will stroll to school together on Tuesday to promote pedestrian safety and physical fitness.

Last year, about 400,000 Americans in 47 states and more than 2 million people in nine countries participated in the annual event, called "Walk to School Day."

"The whole thing has grown in leaps and bounds," says Harold Thompson, manager of highway traffic safety for the National Safety Council (NSC).

This will be the fifth annual "Walk to School Day." The first was held in Chicago in 1997. It was established by the Partnership for a Walkable America, an alliance of pubic and private organizations trying to make the United States more pedestrian-friendly.

This year you can "Walk with the Stars" in Pima, Ariz., or have "Crazy Feet" in Los Altos, Calif. Those are just some examples of the different approaches and themes communities across the nation will use to celebrate "Walk to School Day" on Oct. 2.

"The walks are just so varied, from a mom and daughter walking to school to huge events out in California with thousands of people," says Sara Latta of the Pedestrian Bicycle Information Center, which is hosting the national and international Web sites for "Walk to School Day."

Some organizers plan to use the day to promote a sense of community comfort and safety in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"A lot of the children will be carrying flags, wearing red, white and blue," Latta says.

Promoting physical fitness is an important part of the event, too.

It's also a way for parents and community leaders to teach their children street safety and see what potential hazards children face when walking to school. That includes streets without sidewalks, sidewalks that need repairs, dangerous road crossings, or speeding drivers.

So although this is a one-day event, it can lead to long-term safety improvements.

"Walk to School Day" isn't just about paving a safe path for school kids. It's meant to increase awareness about issues facing all pedestrians, says the NSC's Thompson.

"This is to try to focus attention on how walkable is your community," he says.

For too long, street design has been solely for the benefit of "people who are holding steering wheels in their hands," Thompson adds.

Many neighborhoods don't have sidewalks, and residents in some of those areas actually oppose having sidewalks installed because they consider them undesirable, he says. That means children and other pedestrians have to walk on the road, putting them at risk of being hit by cars, particularly during slippery winter conditions.

Whether it's a lack of sidewalks or dangerous road crossings, unsafe pedestrian conditions are an important health and safety issue, Thompson says.

About 7,000 American pedestrians die and 100,000 are injured each year in traffic accidents, says the U.S. Department of Transportation. Pedestrians and bicyclists account for 15 percent of all traffic fatalities in the nation. In large American cities, pedestrians and cyclists account for almost half the traffic fatalities.

Young children and the elderly are most likely to be victims of such accidents.

What to Do: Click here to get more information about "Walk to School Day" or to find out if there's an event in your community that day. To learn more about pedestrian safety, go to the Partnership for a Walkable America, or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

SOURCES: Interviews with Sara Latta, communications specialist, Pedestrian Bicycle Information Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Harold Thompson, Ph.D., manager of highway traffic safety, National Safety Council, Itasca, Ill.
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