What’s the evidence that parents matter in child road safety?

It might appear obvious that parents are central to keeping children and young people safe on the roads, but it is striking that most road safety education initiatives focus almost exclusively on the children themselves, even for pre-schoolers. There are exceptions such as Think! resources and the Walk about Talk about education pack produced by Transport for London (TfL) in 2015, but while the notion of parents being a ‘role model’ is commonplace, it is not unusual to hear road safety professionals bemoaning the fact that parents are not reinforcing the safety messages they are teaching children.

This article reviews that research about the impact of parents and makes the case that they deserve more attention in their own right. It is part of a collection of articles on the Making the Link website that cover aspects of child road safety and parents.

Child development and parenting

During the 2000s there was a sharp increase in interest among policy makers, researchers and service providers about the impact of parenting on child development. 

The agenda was driven by issues around social mobility, health, wellbeing and anti-social behaviour. Key questions included the association between parenting and educational attainment, mental health problems. Studies explored whether and how dads mattered. They also evaluated the impact of targeted parenting programmes such as those aiming to reduce anti-social behaviour? New studies countered the popular belief that there is little parents can do to impact on their teenagers attitudes and behaviour.

The major themes that emerged for the research were that the quality of parent-child relationships are significantly associated with:

  • Learning skills and educational achievement
  • Social competence (especially peer relations)
  • Children’s views of themselves (self-worth)
  • Aggressive ‘externalising’ behaviour and delinquency
  • Depression, anxiety and other ‘internalising’ problems
  • High-risk health behaviours

O’Connor, T & Scott, S. (2007)

 

Research also highlighted ‘how’ parents act and the environments they live in also matter. The principal findings are:

  • Flexible adaptable parenting is most effective
  • A warm, authoritative (firm but fair) and responsive style builds resilience to cope with major stress
  • The relationship between the child and primary caregiver (usually a mother) is key for successful development in the early years
  • Fathers are especially important for teens and education
  • What children/young people think about their parenting is not necessarily what their Parents think they think
  • Parents underestimate their own influence
  • There is no causal link between parenting and poverty. But poverty can undermine parenting
  • Simplistic assumptions about black and minority ethnic (BME) families have not helped protect children from abuse
  • Parents that most need family support services are often the least likely to access it – but engagement can be improved. 

These findings are sufficient to confirm that that parents matter a lot, but is this relevant to road safety? Certainly road safety was not on the agenda of mainstream health and wellbeing discussion in relation to parenting during the 2000s and this remains the case today, though two studies commissioned by the Department for Transport (DfT) stand out and remain relevant (Cattan et al, 2008 and Green et al, 2008).

Child-parent interaction and road safety

Cattan and colleagues reviewed the research literature on child-parent interaction in relation to road safety education. They considered the main vulnerable road user groups and also looked at studies that covered child road safety in general. The main findings are included in this table plus more recent US research on young drivers who were part of graduated licensing schemes:

Pedestrians

Cycling

In car and driving

  • Sufficient evidence that parents believe it is mainly their role to teach their children road safety
  • Holding hands is the most common form of parent-child interaction when crossing roads
  • Some evidence that children accompanied by adults tend to rely on the adult for safety. More likely to check for safety when unaccompanied
  • Lack of consistency in adults’ and children’s road crossing behaviour
  • Some evidence brief/focused conversations btw parent/child associated with more disciplined road behaviour
  • Insufficient evidence to show parents’ oral instructions are effective in increasing road safety 
      Catan et al, 2008 
  • Sufficient evidence that parents (especially mothers) are an important influence on young children’s use of cycle helmets
  • Some evidence to suggest that parents’ perceptions of the local traffic environment are important factors in determining children’s cycling patterns
  • Some, but conflicting, evidence regarding parents’ understanding of their children’s level of experience and level of risk 
       Catan et al, 2008 

 

  • Parents’ driving styles have an impact on teenagers’ car safety behaviour and, in particular, seat-belt use
  • Parental monitoring and control influence their children’s safe driving. Parents’ driving styles have an impact on teenagers’ car safety behaviour and, in particular, seat-belt use
  • Parents often lack awareness of teenage drinking and driving, and frequently deny their own child’s involvement in such activities
  • Parental driving rules and the consequences of breaking the rules are not always clearly defined 

     Taubman-Ben-Ari, O. Ed (2014)

 

Catan and colleagues identified a number of areas where gaps in knowledge were significant including:

  • The physical interaction (such as holding hands) and the verbal interaction
    (instructing, encouraging problem-solving in the traffic environment)
  • Parents/child observational studies on all aspects of road use, not only pedestrians
  • Comparing child-parent interaction in different geographical
    environments/socio-economic circumstances
  • Children with disabilities
  • The effect of walking buses and traffic clubs
  • Child-parent (road safety) interaction as cyclists
  • How negative attitudes to cycle helmet use rise 
  • Parent-child interaction and driving safety in the UK

 

DfT also funded a companion research project (Green et al, 2008) which examined some of the issues identified by Cattan. The findings were:

  • Parents and children are aware of the risks on the road
  • Parents tend to be inconsistent role models, and the quality of the role model deteriorated as their children got older
  • Parents offer little explanation about adapting behaviour to suit the situation
  • Parents’ overriding concern is protection
  • Parents tend not to take full advantage of teaching opportunities
  • When teaching happens it’s on quiet roads/crossings – less ‘real life’
  • The Road safety education that parents provide is often patchy and based on what they learnt as children (dated) – not taking into account complexity/volume of modern-day traffic or local hazards
  • Parents tend to emphasise knowledge rather than skills development
  • Messages to children when they go out alone tend to be vague – ‘Be careful’/‘Take care’
  • Most parents felt confident about providing road safety education – unplanned, intuitive – harder with teens
  • Children want parents to start when they are young; teach rules with explanations; set a good example and develop roadside skills

Setting an example?

Role modelling is a popular concept, and although academics debate its validity, it is widely accepted that children learn a lot from their parents’ behaviour (social learning). Psychologist Carl Pickhardt provides an insight that seems relevant:

Children observe their parents more closely, appraise their parents more carefully, and know their parents better than parents do the child. How could it be otherwise? The positional power difference makes this inequality necessarily so… Parents vastly underestimate how closely they are observed and how constantly they are evaluated by their child

 Pickhardt, C. (2013)

Conclusion

It is clear enough that parents are extremely relevant to road safety education. The challenge then for professionals is not to collude with an approach that focuses exclusively on the child or young people, just because they might be easier to access. Engaging with parents must be a priority from the ante natal stage right through into young adulthood.

Parents need some support to enable them to make the most of their unique position as primary educators, enabling them to be up to date and able to make best use of their daily interaction with their children to pass on effective road safety messages both through what they say, and through what they do.

Other articles on this website cover examples of work with parents including parents’ views about important road safety issues such as child car seats plus resources that target them. See: 

More information

Updated June 2016