One of the key issues in a number of cycling initiatives – Complete Streets, Safe Routes to Schools, etc. – is the concept that fewer kids are bicycling or walking within the community than in days of yore. This is, of course, provably and statistically true.
With a lot of the lines of vehicles waiting outside schools to pick up individual children, there’s a secondary question about the death of carpools. Now, I can see where the existing infrastructure in some places is a huge barrier in having people walk or ride their bicycles to school. For instance, in Anoka County, if your kid were to have to cross MN65, it’s pretty close to a non-starter, even with chaperoning adults. Statistics say that the corridor is just an accident hotbed. However, much as when I was a kid we all walked to school, when the weather was awful, our parents didn’t take us one to a vehicle. The neighbors would coordinate, and we’d pile kids into one or two cars total. At school pickup, if the next-door neighbor leaned out the door and said that she was picking me up too and had talked to my mom, this was also highly credible. (It’s not as though I was taking a ride from a stranger – this was the next-door-neighbor, also picking up her own kids with whom I played every afternoon!)
This doesn’t happen any more. And I think I realized why the other day: Booster seat laws. I don’t see this mentioned anywhere lamenting all the minivans lined up outside schools, but on consideration, it’s absolutely a factor.
Think about it: Kids are supposed to ride in boosters until they are 48″ tall. That’s 4 feet. Many states make this a law. If you start looking at growth charts, most kids will be in boosters for most of elementary school. Parents typically have the proper seating for their own kids, and not to pile all their kids’ friends into the minivan to go to soccer or the pool or school.
There are ergonomic and design reasons for booster seat requirements. However, when you consider the death of the carpool, it raises a question if there is a role for finding a way to create more flexible built-in restraint systems in family vehicles (minivans, SUVs, wagons) that meet established safety standards but allow for loading up a spare kid without use of a booster. Because even with safer routes and infrastructure, this is the midwest, and you won’t always avoid the day where it’s raining sideways and there’s a tornado warning and flash flood watch. Not the nature of things. And on such days, there may always be a role for a parent to pick up a carful of kids, rather than have them use even nice safe streets to get home looking like drowned kittens.