Imagine you are moving toward the end of a stressful day. Hectic morning routines, busy day solving problems at work, and now you’ve picked the younger one up from daycare and the older one at school after-care. You stop by the grocery store to grab dinner. Before you gather the reusable bags, though, your older child pops out of the car seat, opens the door and starts toward the supermarket.
Seem plausible? The details may vary here and there, but this seemingly benign scenario presents serious danger. Cars in parking lots may be speeding, some drivers may fail to look carefully behind them as they back out, and other drivers may not notice short-statured child pedestrians because of blinding sunlight or distracting smartphones. Plus, children lack cognitive skills to engage safely in traffic as pedestrians.
In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates over 200 American children are killed every year, and another 5,000 seriously injured, by motor vehicles in non-traffic locations. Parking lots present particular risk, especially for young children.
In a recently published study, we examined risks to children in parking lots. Results are stunning. Of the 124 families observed crossing the street from their car to a local community center, 67% of children ages 2 to 10 years were unsupervised at some point in the parking lot between their vehicle parking and the child entering the building. Half of children exited the vehicle into the parking lot before an adult. In addition, almost 90% of children were outside of arm’s length from an adult while crossing active thoroughfares in the parking lot.
Why might parents supervise their children so poorly in parking lots? It may be because parents fail to perceive much risk. Parking lots feel safe. They are familiar and comfortable environments where traffic moves slowly. And parents may be busy or distracted carrying their bags and supplies, processing the daily stresses of life, or checking their smartphones.
Children may also perceive parking lots to be safe environments. A child who visits the same place regularly may feel secure in walking across the parking lot to the building because it is comfortable, and they have never previously experienced an injury. In some cases, they may also feel excited to go inside to new, fun, or rewarding environments.
The UAB Youth Safety Lab offers several simple recommendations for adults to keep their young children safe in parking lots:
- Gather your necessary belongings from the car prior to anyone exiting the vehicle
- Keep your children inside the vehicle until you are ready to get out and walk to the building
- Secure young children first before allowing older children to exit the vehicle
- Hold your young child’s hand at all times throughout the pedestrian journey
- Use sidewalks and pedestrian paths when they are available
- Teach children basic pedestrian skills while you walk, such as looking both ways before crossing the parking lot and recognizing how reverse lights on vehicles work
- Highlight to children the importance of remaining vigilant of all surroundings, including searching for moving vehicles and reverse lights
- Don’t walk distracted. Both children and adults should be attentive throughout the pedestrian crossing
- Review parking lot rules with children before parking the car: “Remember to stay in the car until I open the door”, or “Let’s remember to hold hands until we get inside”
Of course, adults must also be cautious as drivers. While driving in parking lots, we should move slowly, stay undistracted, and be watchful of pedestrians, including children who may be harder to see given their short stature. When driving in reverse, use both the back-up camera and look through the windows in all directions to identify pedestrians and other hazards.
In conclusion, we advocate for increased education and action on the topic of children’s safety in parking lots. Together, we can combat this serious and under-recognized pediatric public health concern
Rouse, J. B. & Schwebel, D. C. (September 19, 2019). Children’s safety in parking lots: Dangers from Here to There. Retrieved from https://infoaboutkids.org/blog/childrens-safety-in-parking-lots-dangers-from-here-to-there