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Child Development and the Aims of Road Safety Education—A Review and Analysis.
  1. Elizabeth Towner
  1. Community Child Health, Department of Child Health, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

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This book challenges the widely held views in road safety that young children are biologically incapable of coping with the road environment, until an appropriate stage of psychological development is reached. It thus provides an informative framework for a debate on the aims and objectives of road safety education and usefully contributes to the debate on the relative role of education, engineering, and urban planning methods in injury prevention.

The report was commissioned by the Department of Transport from a team of developmental psychologists at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland. The first author, James Thomson has been actively involved in the development and evaluation of both experimental and operational road safety programmes, but the report ranges more widely than the authors' own programmes.

The book comprises five main sections: (1) aims and objectives of road safety education, (2) current methods employed in road safety education, (3) theories relating to child development, (4) implications of these theories for training, and (5) conclusions and recommendations. A clear and concise executive summary is provided and there are useful summary sections for each chapter. The bibliography of 220 references draws widely from the field of development psychology. One criticism here is that more attention is give to the road safety literature from Europe than from the USA or Australia. The report, however, usefully summarises the developmental psychologist perspective on this issue, is (thankfully) free from jargon, and very clearly written. It provides a work of some scholarship and careful argument.

The aims and objectives of current road safety education are explored in chapter 1. What emerges is the lack of concrete objectives in most programmes. Even when more precise objectives are defined, the majority are concerned with knowledge and attitude change, rather than behaviour. As there are no direct links between knowledge change and behaviour, the validity of most road safety education can be questioned. The authors go on to analyse different components of the complex pedestrian task: detecting the presence of traffic, making visual timing judgments, coordinating information from different directions, and coordinating perception and action. They discuss how such skills develop in children and the level of skills that can be expected in children of different ages. They cite convincing evidence that children's performance on a range of clearly defined pedestrian skills can be accelerated, providing appropriate training is given.

The issue of appropriate training is examined in chapter 2. A useful distinction is made between the content of a programme and the methods employed: programmes can fail if the content is inappropriate and/or if the methods are inappropriate. What methods have been used in this field? Classroom based verbal methods, books and printed materials, films and videos, and practical training are all analysed. An interesting observation is that video techniques can offer greater flexibility than films, particularly if they are tailored to children's own locality and incorporate children as subjects. The feedback capabilities of such local videos may be worth exploring further. But the report particularly favours the use of practical skills training, involving active behavioural participation and their arguments is convincing:

“Skiing or swimming, driving or learning to ride a bike all require practical experience: no-one has ever learned to do these things just sitting at a desk. Yet this is precisely how we expect young children to cross the road” (59).

Chapter 3 provides the theoretical underpinning of why practical skills training is effective, concentrating in particular on the theories of J J Gibson, Jean Piaget, and L S Vygotsky. Skills and strategies cannot be taught solely by verbal means but need to be built up from their constituent behaviours. There is strong evidence that learning is more flexible than earlier supposed, particularly when appropriate interventions are employed and the authors conclude that appropriate training could begin as early as 4 years of age.

The implications of child development theory for training are discussed in chapter 4, with peer tutoring, adult led training, and peer collaboration being considered. The first two of these methods stem from a Vygotskian approach and are likely to be best suited to the learning of skills and strategies. Peer collaboration, on the other hand, is more in line with Piagetian theory and would appear to be more useful in the provision of conceptual understanding. The authors believe that successful training needs to include both approaches.

The final chapter summarises the context of the report and produces a range of recommendations for both practical training and for future research.

One reservation about the report is that it is not overtly systematic: it does not set out its criteria for the way its evidence was obtained nor its inclusion criteria for how studies were selected. Is there a literature that does not support the conclusions, which has not been cited. It would have been useful to have had the study findings summarised in accompanying tables.

Childhood injury prevention requires input from a wide range of disciplines and this contribution from the developmental psychology field is a useful addition to the literature, particularly in its attempt to provide a more theoretical base to the subject. Attention to the nature of the messages, more precise objectives, and the use of appropriate methods are important when we consider the wider debate on the role of education in injury prevention. Pessimism about the limitations of education may not be wholly justified if we design more appropriate educational interventions.

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