IOWA CITY, Iowa — What parents have long suspected is true: Crossing the street is not child’s play. In fact, a new study finds that up until the age of 14, children lack the skills needed for crossing streets as safely as adults.

Researchers at the University of Iowa tested a group of children ages 6 to 14, along with a control group of adults, in a simulated 3D environment designed to mimic a single lane of typical residential traffic. Each person was tasked with safely crossing a nine-foot single lane 20 times. Virtual vehicles were travelling at 25 mph with gaps between vehicles varying from two to five seconds.

Woman walking in street with child
You might think your preteen has it down pat, but a new study finds that a child doesn’t fully develop skills for crossing streets safely until the age of 14.

“Some people think younger children may be able to perform like adults when crossing the street,” says Jodie Plumert, professor in the university’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, in a news release. “Our study shows that’s not necessarily the case on busy roads where traffic doesn’t stop.”

The study found that even the youngest test subjects could cross the street as quickly as the adults. They also found that kids often picked the same gap size that an adult would between a passing car and the next oncoming vehicle.

The problem is in timing the exact moment to step off the curb and then having the motor skills to make the follow-through movement.

The younger the child, the researchers found, the harder it was for the child to figure out how much gap time was available between cars. Also, the younger the child, the slower the response time between thinking “cross now” and then physically taking the first step.

If the test vehicles had been actual cars, the team found that 8% of 6-year-olds would have been struck. Although the percentages drop to 6% for 8-year-olds, 5% for 10-year-olds and 2% for 12-year-olds, this shows that some grade-school-age children and even middle-school-age children still may need extra support to cross streets safely.

Only by age 14, or roughly the beginning of high school, can children begin to navigate traffic more as an adult. There were no accidents for study participants at this age.

Parents need to know that crossing streets safely, like so many skills children learn, is an ongoing developmental goal. A child’s natural enthusiasm adds to the mix.

“They get the pressure of not wanting to wait combined with these less-mature abilities,” says Plumert. “And that’s what makes it a risky situation.”

Parents can help by teaching their children to wait and by showing children how to pick gaps that are even bigger than what an adult would choose. Communities can take a closer look at where to place additional crosswalks or use crossing aids.

The study appears in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

About Terra Marquette

Terra is a Denver-area freelance writer, editor and researcher. In her free time, she creates playlists for every mood.

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