At about 8:15 on a weekday morning, sidewalks around Taggart School in Philadelphia begin to fill with children. Crossing guard Marilyn Miller talks, but her eyes look elsewhere, darting, trying to catch the little ones before they cross the street where they shouldn't.
"There was this mother who crossed her daughters wherever she felt like it. Well, one day she wasn't here and the girls came by themselves. They crossed behind the bus and almost got nailed."
Ms. Miller, a 10-year veteran of the intersection, can tell stories about parents who misjudge how street safe their children are.
Dr. Frederick P. Rivara can tell stories, too. A study by Dr. Rivara, a pediatrics professor, and two colleagues published yesterday in the journal Pediatrics shows that parents of small children overestimate how well their sons and daughters can safely cross the street. In fact, many thought that their "5 year olds had as many skills" as 10 year olds, says Dr. Rivara.
Some 50,000 children are injured each year as pedestrians and about 1,800 die, he says. Pedestrian accidents are the No. 1 cause of death by injury among 5- to 9-year-olds, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In 1988, 506 children between the ages of 5 and 9 died.
"Parents are putting kids out there in situations that they can't handle," says Dr. Rivara, the director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle. He did the study of 240 families with Harborview researchers Rosemary G. Dunne and Kenneth N. Asher.
In the new study, children were asked to draw how they would cross streets on intersection maps. Then, separately, parents drew how they thought their children would do it.
Later, the researchers put children at actual intersections and had them cross. Again separately, the parents were asked to cross as they believed their children would.
The children were grouped at ages 5 to 6, 7 to 8 and 9 to 10.
Parents of the youngest children overestimated their skills far more often than parents of the older children, Dr. Rivara said.
The parents of the 5- and 6-year-olds overestimated their children's ability on the map test 23 percent of the time, while just 4 percent of the 7- and 8-year-olds' parents made the same mistake.
On the outdoor tests, the parents of the youngest children were wrong as much as 17 percent of the time.
Dr. Rivara acknowledges that 17 percent and 23 percent are not huge numbers, but he points out that state seatbelt laws have decreased auto fatalities 9 percent to 12 percent and that, perhaps, better parent education can similarly decrease the number of pediatric pedestrian fatalities and injuries.
He adds that parents must be better educated about small children's developmental limitations. "As a society, we have to think about whether it is appropriate for 5- and 6-year-olds to walk to school alone."