Background: Empirical evidence of the relationship between safety concerns and walking to school (WTS) is growing. However, current research offers limited understanding of the multiple domains of parental safety concerns and the specific mechanisms through which parents articulate safety concerns about WTS. A more detailed understanding is needed to inform environmental and policy interventions. This study examined the relationships between both traffic safety and personal safety concerns and WTS in the U.S.
Methods: This cross-sectional analysis examined data from the Texas Childhood Obesity Prevention Policy Evaluation (T-COPPE) project, an evaluation of state-wide obesity prevention policy interventions. All study data were from the survey (n=830) of parents with 4th grade students attending 81 elementary schools across Texas, and living within two miles from their children's schools. Traffic safety and personal safety concerns were captured for the home neighborhood, en-route to school, and school environments. Binary logistic regression analysis was used to assess the odds of WTS controlling for significant covariates.
Results: Overall, 18% of parents reported that their child walked to school on most days of the week. For traffic safety, students were more likely to walk to school if their parent reported favorable perceptions about the following items in the home neighborhood environment: higher sidewalk availability, well maintained sidewalks and safe road crossings. For the route to school, the odds of WTS were higher for those who reported "no problem" with each one of the following: traffic speed, amount of traffic, sidewalks/pathways, intersection/crossing safety, and crossing guards, when compared to those that reported "always a problem". For personal safety in the en-route to school environment, the odds of WTS were lower when parents reported concerns about: stray or dangerous animals and availability of others with whom to walk.
Conclusions: Findings offered insights into the specific issues that drive safety concerns for elementary school children's WTS behaviors. The observed associations between more favorable perceptions of safety and WTS provide further justification for practical intervention strategies to reduce WTS barriers that can potentially bring long-term physical activity and health benefits to school-aged children.