Lessons Learned from 11 Years of Teaching Children to Be Safe in Traffic

By Adam Marsal

Miroslav Polách is a road safety expert at the Czech agency BESIP, the local equivalent of the European Transport Safety Council. Every year, he meets hundreds of children in kindergartens and elementary schools, and at events for the general public to teach them the rules of the road. What has he learned in his eleven-year career and what does he recommend to parents of budding cyclists?

It’s a dilemma. On the one hand, most parents want their children to cycle to school or to activities so they’ll become more independent but on the other hand, they are worried about them. This is a completely natural fear that can be somewhat soothed if children know how to ride safely in traffic. The road to that, though, is not short and includes theoretical and practical lessons in which children learn how to deal with typical situations that may arise when using public roads.

Miroslav Polách is the coordinator of the Czech transport agency BESIP. For more than eleven years, he has been responsible for road safety education while organising events and seminars to prevent accidents. In his work, he cooperates closely with local and state police or municipal authorities. Mr Polách holds his seminars mainly in kindergartens and elementary schools but also meets the children at various sporting or cultural events. Convinced that children should be familiarised with the rules of the road from an early age, Mr Polách tries to make his seminars as entertaining and interactive as possible.

“I am an advocate for road safety education from kindergarten,” he says, emphasising that there are fundamental differences between the various educational institutions. While children in one school can confidently recognise every important traffic sign, elsewhere, they have fundamental gaps in their knowledge. “Recently, a 13-year-old girl could not recognise the ‘Stop!’ sign. She was dead serious and told me it was a ‘no parking’ sign,” says Mr Polách.

The traffic expert recommends that children should not be overburdened with learning all the traffic signs. Parents or teachers should select only the important ones and then repeat these signs constantly so that the children remember them and know how to behave. “They should learn the main road, how to give way, roundabouts, and stop signs. But as cyclists, they do not need to know the ‘no stopping’ sign,” explains Mr Polách.

It depends on the legislation in each country but on average, children aged 10 are allowed to ride a bicycle on the road. In the Czech Republic, where Miroslav Polách comes from, schoolchildren are encouraged by teachers and school authorities to prove in a theoretical and practical test that they have the necessary skills to ride safely on public roads. After successfully passing the test, they receive a card – a kind of equivalent to a driver’s licence for young cyclists. The tests are optional and proof of passing has no formal effect. The cycling licence does not serve as a driving licence but is a guarantee for parents of children, for example, that they can let their child participate in traffic independently.

Mr Polách at one of the events for kids

Each school also has an individual approach to road safety education. According to internal regulations, schools in the Czech Republic should devote at least one hour per month to road safety education. Although not all schools fulfil this obligation conscientiously, school principals are generally interested in traffic education and motivate children by giving them lessons at local traffic playgrounds or organising workshops with experts such as Miroslav Polách. According to him, only six out of ten candidates pass the test on their first attempt.

The biggest and most common mistake children make is a lack of attention and general distraction. Sometimes, they overlook a sign or cross a junction without stopping. However, the approach differs from child to child. While one child takes the theory of road safety education seriously, another does what they think is right. This leads to children riding in the opposite direction or into a no-entry zone.

One major issue is the obligation to wear a helmet until the age of 18. Incidentally, this obligation applies not only to young cyclists but also to scooter users. “While young children are proud of their helmets, the problem starts in puberty when they no longer feel cool enough to wear a helmet. Awareness of the importance of helmets only returns as they get older,” says Polách, emphasising that parents should educate their children and not intimidate them with possible punishments. He often encounters parents who explain to their children, for example, that the main reason they buckle them into their car seat is so that they do not get a ticket if they are stopped by a police patrol.

To learn how to navigate on public roads, Polách recommends finding a nearby traffic playground and practising there with the children. As soon as parents venture out into real traffic with their children, they should observe basic safety rules. The most important thing is to keep an eye on the children at all times. This means that if only one adult is accompanying a child on a bike, they should not ride first, but always behind the child. Some parents believe that by riding in front, they are showing the child the way but at the same time, they completely lose control of the child. They have no way of seeing whether the child is drifting into a car lane, correctly indicating a change of direction with their hand or maybe even if they have fallen. In addition, the adult must ride in the back to protect the child from vehicles coming from behind. If children are accompanied by several adults, one of them rides at the front and another closes the group.

As with all human activities, the most important factor in raising children is to set a good example. “If children see that their parents wear a helmet, indicate a change of direction with their hand, behave considerately in traffic and follow the rules consistently, they are much more likely to grow up to be good cyclists who contribute to an overall increase in road safety,” concludes Miroslav Polách.