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Study shows children differ from adults in ability to accurately judge vehicle speed

New research has found that children are unable to accurately see or judge the speed of vehicles traveling at more than 20mph, prompting calls from campaigners to introduce more 20mph zones in residential areas to protect youngsters from the dangers posed by traffic.

The study, which is due to be published in the journal Psychological Science, was conducted by vision scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, and assessed the ability of children to see cars approaching them as they crossed the road.

It found that where vehicles were traveling at speeds above 20mph, children of primary school age, 6-11 years, might not be able to determine that a car was approaching them.

According to the 20’s Plenty for US campaign, the finding “strongly supports arguments for implementing and enforcing 20 mph speed restrictions in areas with child pedestrians such as residential streets.”

In the study, it was found that a “speed illusion” could cause pedestrians, whatever their age, as well as drivers at junctions, to underestimate the speed of vehicles that are traveling more quickly and in some instances not see them at all.

The researchers undertook a survey of the perceptual acuity of more than 100 primay school children to identify the level of speed of approach that they were able to detect. Unlike adults, who could accurately judge speeds of up to 50mph, it was found that children’s estimates became unreliable once 20mph was exceeded.

Professor John Wann, who headed the research team, commented: “This is not a matter of children not paying attention, but a problem related to low-level visual detection mechanisms, so even when children are paying very close attention they may fail to detect a fast approaching vehicle.”

Professor Wann maintained that the most straightforward solution to the problem was one of traffic regulation, saying: “These findings provide strong evidence that children may make risky crossing judgements when vehicles are travelling at 30 or 40 mph.

"In addition, the vehicles that they are more likely to step in front of are the faster vehicles that are more likely to result in a fatality. Travelling 1 mile though a residential area at 20 mph vs. 30 mph will only add 60 seconds to journey time. We encourage drivers to take a minute and save a child’s life”.

Anna Semlyen, Campaign Manager for 20’s Plenty for Us insisted: “We cannot address child road safety by simply teaching them to pay more attention. Child pedestrians can’t judge approach speeds as well as adults.

“It’s simplistic to blame children and suggest they “run out”, without checking. But this study suggests it’s drivers going too fast that create errors, as it is then impossible for children to make correct judgments. It’s up to adult society to protect families through 20 mph limits where people live and for drivers to obey the signs.“

The study was carried out as part of a wider project backed by UK research council ESRC to discover perceptual factors that can potentially cause pedestrian accidents. Recently, findings were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society that used brain imaging research that determined that a key factor in assessing and anticipating collisions occurred at brain-stem level, acting in effect as “a low-level early detection system.”
 

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.