Fact sheet

Traffic education for children 4-12 years old


Traffic education for children is of the utmost importance as a basis for safe traffic participation; not only formal education at schools, but especially continuous education of children by parents. Since the brains of children have not yet developed completely, there is a limit to what children can deal with in traffic. By stimulating them, this development can be speeded up slightly.

The effects of traffic education are usually unclear, and evaluation research is urgently needed, if we aim to further professionalize the field of traffic education. In recent years, various tools have become available for this professionalization, such as the document of training objectives and the toolkit permanent traffic education, as well as tools for those who develop educational programmes (the education checklist) and advices for measuring the effects of these programmes.

Background and content

Traffic education is necessary to make sure children have sufficient knowledge and skills to participate in traffic. But what exactly must children learn? And how? To answer these questions, this fact sheet discusses the mental development of children and the consequences for traffic education. In addition, it looks at the effects of various traffic education programmes. This fact sheet does not discuss how traffic evaluation programmes should be evaluated. This is discussed in the archived SWOV fact sheet entitled Necessity, contents and assessment of traffic education. Child road safety is only indirectly dealt with here; for this see the fact sheet Road safety of children in the Netherlands (archived).


How do children develop mentally?

Children are essentially different from adults because a number of competences have not yet developed. In a review, Congiu et al. (2008) cite various studies showing that young children are still underdeveloped where it comes to attention, (visual) perception, and cognition; competences which are essential for safe traffic participation. For example, research shows that for a task such as crossing over, many skills are essential that children below the age of 7 have not acquired yet. Therefore it is very difficult to carry out this task correctly and safely (see Table 1).

Table 1. Necessary activities, psychological processes, and age groups for successful carrying out of the traffic task 'crossing the road' (after Foot et al., 1999).
What does this mean for traffic education programmes?

The mental development not only provides insight into the tasks that children can handle, but also determines the manner in which task must be taught. In setting up a traffic education programme we must therefore take the target group into account and decide which form of education is most suitable for that group. This fact sheet looks at the programmes for 4-12 year olds, mainly focussing on young children as pedestrians.

Which training is most effective?

A study (Thomas et al., 1996) shows that learning during the formative years usually starts with self‑experience. Only after that does an overview and understanding of traffic's general features develop. For traffic education this means that young children mainly need to master practical skills. When a skill has frequently been practiced in familiar and unfamiliar situations, children can progress towards situations that require an overview and understanding, such as interactions between different categories of road user. In addition to teaching children the correct behaviour, education should also deal with awareness and impulse control, but this will not be effective for very young children. The area of the brain that regulates these processes is the frontal lobe which grows rapidly between the ages of 12 to 25 years old (Giedd et al., 2004). This means that the effects of training will partly be limited by the physiology of the brain.

How do children learn?

Learning is ‘domain specific’. This means that a young child can often only put into practice that what was learned at the location where it was learned, for example, a child will choose one particular zebra crossing as the safe place to cross over along the route to school. Extending what has been learned to new situations, (choosing a safe place to cross over at a different location), is difficult and likely to be done incorrectly (Demetre, 1997). This means that a child must be accompanied by an adult in order to master this new situation as well. Similar problems occur, for example, when learning is done from a book (or using computer games). What is correctly learned or done in the learning environment does not automatically result in the correct behaviour in practice.

Who do children learn the most from?

Children learn most from those who mean a lot to them (Hoekstra & Twisk, 2010). These can be their parents or teachers, but also 'heroes' such as the characters in a comic strip or 'role models' such as sport stars. In social psychology these are known as the 'important other'. This does not only relate to explicit messages such as 'put your belt on, that is safe' but especially to implicit messages. These are conveyed in a manner in which the 'important other' behaves and expresses himself. A parent who does not wear a seatbelt but expects a child to wear one, is sending the implicit message that it is not really very important.

How much traffic education is needed?

Teaching and learning safe behaviour in traffic is time consuming since children must learn to allow for suddenly and rapidly changing traffic situations and for complex rules. They must also estimate their own capabilities of carrying out the required task within the time available, e.g. crossing the road when there is traffic. Even relatively simple tasks such as cycling require practice nearly every day. Education at school can provide part of the training, but – considering the practical exercise needed – this is only a fraction of the total training required. Therefore, it is essential, more than is the case now, to motivate parents and child minders to teach the children in their company actively about traffic during their daily trips. This also means not only taking the children to school by car, but walking or cycling with them along the safest route (see also Chapter 7 in Wegman & Aarts, 2007, and Hoekstra & Twisk, 2010).

Which age limits are there?

The age limits in Table 1 are only indicative. Psychological research (see Dragutinovic & Twisk, 2006) has shown that children can already learn important traffic skills from the age of 5, and that traffic education can speed up the learning process. It does depend, however, on which task is being taught: the technique of crossing over can be learned from the age of 5 (Dragutinovic & Twisk, 2006), but most children under the age of 10 still make many mistakes in choosing a safe place to cross over (Congiu et al., 2008). With correct training, children of about 12 years old can perform the pedestrian task almost as well as adults (Dragutinovic & Twisk, 2006).

One of the most practical questions on this issue is which is the correct age for being an independent road user. There is no general answer to this question because it depends on the dangers on a child's route and on the child. Parents could be supported here by a practical checklist to help them judge both the complexity of the route and the development level of their child. Traffic education programmes must avoid creating the illusion in parents that a child can do more than it actually can (see also Wegman & Aarts, 2005).

How effective is traffic education for children?

Although traffic education takes place in practically all countries, it is rarely evaluated. Moreover, few of the assessments that were carried out were of a sufficient quality.

Using the titles and summaries, Duperrex et al. (2002) made a systematic overview of randomized evaluations with a control group. They found 674 potential evaluation studies, of which only 15 ultimately met the methodological requirements. 14 of these referred to the education of children up to the age of 12. The evaluated programmes can be roughly divided into two groups:

  • ‘Traffic clubs’: These are programmes (often after school hours) in which parents play an active role practicing a programme together with their children. The target group consists of children of 3 to 6 years old.
  • Other programmes, including crossing over programmes.

Traffic clubs

Three evaluation studies of Traffic clubs were found. West et al. (1993) assessed the GAERTC programme in East England on the points of knowledge, self-reported behaviour, and acceptation of the programme by the target group. The self-reported behaviour improved, and the parents more often tried to teach their children road safety. The sample for the study of the effects of the Swedish Traffic club was large enough to judge the effects on the crash rate (Gregersen & Nolen, 1994). Although the study had positive results, such as more education by parents and more frequent use of safety devices, there was an undesired effect, namely that the crash rate of the Traffic club group increased. There is no really logical explanation for this effect other than the possibility that the children have become overconfident because of the course and thought more highly of their skills than they actually were. Another explanation is that the concept of ‘road risk’ was made more accessible in the memory by participation, so that parents remember more crashes. The study of Bryan-Brown & Harland (1999) showed mainly positive results. Parents taught their children about road safety more often, and more often chose safe pedestrian crossings.

Other programmes

The overview of Duperrex et al. (2002) included only one Dutch traffic education programme (Van Schagen & Rothengatter, 1997). This study compared the effects of traffic education at school with the effects of this education in traffic. Two aspects were assessed: knowledge and crossing behaviour. This study showed that, for both aspects, the control group did worse than the children who had been taught with one of three teaching methods used (in the classroom or in traffic). The methods did not differ in effectiveness.

Describing in detail the other five evaluations which were carried out in other countries than the Netherlands, would distract from the main subject of this fact sheet (for more details see Dragutinovic & Twisk, 2006). Only two of the studies evaluated the effects on behaviour and also found a positive effect (Tolmie et al., 2003; Thomson, 1991). The other studies were limited to knowledge and/or attitudes (Platt et al., 2003; Clayton et al., 1995; Zeedyk et al., 2002).       

The abovementioned overview of Duperrex et al. (2002) concludes that the crossing behaviour of pedestrians can be improved by traffic education. The question may be asked whether this ultimately leads to a decrease in the pedestrian injury rate, as this has not been studied at all. In addition, most of the programmes were so small-scaled and the evaluation so short in duration, that it would not be possible to show differences in the numbers of crashes, especially because crashes with pedestrians are relatively rare. See also SWOV fact sheet Necessity, contents and assessment of traffic education (archived).

Raftery & Wundersitz (2011) provide a review of the effectiveness of educational programmes in Australia and outside of Australia. They also conclude that the number of evaluation studies that are carried out correctly is very limited, which makes it hard to say that education is effective; it can also not be concluded, however, that it is not effective. In any case, they conclude that interventions focussing on the causes of risk behaviour have a good chance to be effective, while interventions focussing on vehicle control do not. In addition, Hoekstra & Wegman (2011) plead for more of these evaluations of traffic education projects.

The results of the Dutch evaluation study EVEO

In the EVEO project, SWOV, together with the organizations that offered these programmes, evaluated the effects of traffic education programmes (Twisk et al., 2006). Four of the eleven projects that were evaluated were aimed at primary school pupils.

All programmes were assessed by examining self-reported behaviour during a one month period after the education programme had been completed, and not by counting the number of crashes. This choice was made because crashes with pedestrians are relatively rare events in the Netherlands. Specifically aspects related to possible dangerous behaviour, for example red light running on a bicycle, were examined.

One month after the education project a few of the assessed programmes show a slight, but significant improvement in behaviour as a result of the project. The blind spot programme 'Safe on the Way' had the greatest effect: 41% of the pupils reported improved behaviour as a result of the programme. The similar programme entitled 'Heavy Goods Vehicles Instruction Lesson' had no measurable effect. Such a difference between programmes using practically the same theme, but a different approach, is also a good illustration of how important evaluations are. They can be used to improve the weaker programmes.
What traffic education is there in the Netherlands?

Traffic education has been part of the primary school curriculum in the Netherlands for many years. For example, the Dutch Traffic Safety Association's bicycle exam celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2007. In 2005, a comparative study between countries was carried out in which the Dutch situation was also described (Rose 25). For the 4-14 years old age group, for which the Ministry of Education is responsible for traffic education as part of the primary school curriculum, the following training objectives were reported:

  • Children know the traffic rules and the meaning of road signs; they can apply this knowledge in the traffic situation in their immediate environment.
  • Children are capable of safely participating in traffic as pedestrians, cyclists, and as independent users of public transport.

However, it has not been evaluated whether the intended goals are actually being achieved. In 2006 the Ministry of Education carried out a questionnaire study among teachers about the traffic education offered in primary schools (Van der Schoot, 2006). 85% of the teachers who responded give traffic education lessons once a week to 10 year olds, with lessons lasting slightly more than half an hour on average. 90% of the lessons consist of theory since practical lessons are perceived by teachers to require too much organization and time. No study has been made of the effectiveness of traffic education. However, schools with children from a lower social economic environment (based on the education of parents and the number of first or second generation immigrant children) participate considerably less in the traffic practical exam than schools with children from higher social economic environments. Considering the suspected higher crash rate of children from ethnic minorities, this is a worrying state of affairs.

Which recent traffic education developments are there?

The following developments are worth noting, because they aim to further professionalize traffic education:

  • a document containing the objectives of permanent traffic education;
  • the toolkit permanent traffic education;
  • the education checklist;
  • the evaluation of traffic education programmes: recommendations for measuring the effects.

Objectives of permanent traffic education

Permanent traffic education is education which takes place at any time when the existing capabilities/competencies are no longer expected or observed to be adequate for safe behaviour. The permanent character, on the one hand, means that the education anticipates the inadequate behaviour level and, on the other hand, that the education continuously builds on previous traffic education and lays the foundation for later traffic education. The moments when the 'old' competency levels of children do not meet the behavioural demands are situations in which:

  • the traffic environment changes, e.g. when moving house;
  • the traffic task changes: the child cycles to school for the first time;
  • traffic rules change due to new adapted infrastructure;
  • the child has reached a new psychological development phase; e.g. from primary school to secondary school.

Knowledge Platform for Traffic and Transport (KpVV) has drafted a document which gives a clear description of the behavioural preconditions or learning goals for each age group and transport mode (Vissers et al., 2005). This document elaborates on the Dutch report called Naar een succesvolle invoering van Permanente Verkeerseducatie (Van Betuw & Vissers, 2002) which is being updated in 2012.

The toolkit permanent traffic education

The toolkit is an online instrument that helps finding reliable products and projects for permanent traffic education (KpVV, 2011). The toolkit describes some 70 products and assesses their training objectives for the various target groups. Besides this assessment of the contents, the toolkit contains general information such as the availability and costs (http://pvetoolkit.kpvv.nl; in Dutch).

The education checklist

The education checklist was developed for KpVV by consultancy and engineering company DHV (Vissers, 2010) and offers suppliers and developers of traffic education products a method to assess the quality of the product at hand. In applying the education checklist the quality of the product is assessed in ten steps, each step examining a different aspect of the product. Aspects that are examined are, for example, whether the product aims at problem behaviour clearly related to road safety, whether the training objectives are described in concrete terms of behaviour, whether there is a good manual, and whether the effects of the programme are being monitored.

The evaluation of traffic education programmes: recommendations for measuring effects.

This report by Mesken (2011) contains important backgrounds and starting points for a similar set-up of evaluation research. It discusses how the research groups are assembled, the problems with statements on cause and effect relations, and other pieces of information related to the technical aspects of research. This report only contains advice and information on performing a content-based effect assessment. Issues such as didactic quality or process assessment are not discussed in the report.


Not only formal education in schools is important in traffic education, but even more important is the education provided by parents to children. The mental development of children limits their capabilities in traffic, but by stimulating them this development can be speeded up slightly.

The effects of traffic education are rarely studied and evaluation is urgently needed to further professionalize the field. This professionalization is also stimulated by the availability of the training objectives document, which describes the necessary 'know, can, and want to' for each age group. There is also the toolkit in which the Dutch traffic education programmes are discussed. Furthermore, there are tools and advices for developers of traffic education programmes as well as for sound evaluation of these programmes.

Publications and sources

Ampofo-Boateng, K. & Thomson, J.A. (1991). Children’s perception of safety and danger on the road. In: British Journal of Psychology, vol. 82, p. 487-505.

Betuw, A.J.M. van & Vissers, J.A.M.M. (2002). Naar een succesvolle invoering van Permanente Verkeerseducatie: uitgangspunten voor beleid. In opdracht van gezamenlijke Regionale en Provinciale Organen voor de Verkeersveiligheid. TT02-09. Traffic Test, Veenendaal.

Bryan-Brown, K. & Harland, G. (1999). An evaluation of the children's traffic club in Scotland 1999. Development Department Research Programme Research Findings No 69, available at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/cru/resfinds/drf69-00.htm

Clayton, A.B., Platt, C.V., Colgan, M.A. & Butler, G. (1995). A child based approach to road safety education for 8-11 year olds. Automobile Association AA Foundation for Road Safety Research, Basingstoke, Hampshire.

Congiu, M., Whelan, M., Oxley, J., Charlton, J., et al. (2008). Child pedestrians: factors associated with ability to cross roads safely and development of a training package. Report No. 283. Accident Research Centre, Monash University, Victoria, Australia.

Demetre, J.D. (1997). Applying developmental psychology to children's road safety : problems and prospects. In: Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, vol. 18, nr. 2, p. 263-270.

Dragutinovic, N. & Twisk, D.A.M. (2006). The effectiveness of road safety education: a literature review. R-2006-6. SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research, Leidschendam.

Duperrex, O., Bunn, F. & Roberts, I. (2002). Safety education of pedestrians for injury prevention: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. In: British Medical Journal, vol. 324, nr. 7346, p. 1129-1131.

Foot, H., Tolmie, A., Thomson, J., McLaren, B., et al. (1999). Recognising the hazards. In: The Psychologist, vol. 12, nr. 8, 400-402.

Giedd, J.N. (2004). Structural magnetic resonance imaging of the adolescent brain. In: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1021, p. 77-85.

Gregersen, N. P. & Nolen, S. (1994). Children's road safety and the strategy of voluntary traffic safety clubs. In: Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 26, nr. 4, p. 463-470.

Hoekstra, A.T.G. & Twisk, D.A.M. (2010). De rol van ouders in het informele leerproces van kinderen van 4 tot 12 jaar; Een eerste verkenning. R-2010-19. Stichting Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek Verkeersveiligheid SWOV, Leidschendam.

Hoekstra, A.T.G. & Wegman, F.C.M. (2011). Improving the effectiveness of road safety campaigns: Current and new practices. In: IATSS Research, vol. 34, nr. 2, p. 80-86.

KpVV (2011). Toolkit Permanente Verkeerseducatie. Kennisplatform Verkeer en Vervoer KpVV/Ministerie van Verkeer en Waterstaat, Rotterdam.

Mesken, J. (2011). De evaluatie van verkeerseducatieprogramma's. R-2011-8. Stichting Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek Verkeersveiligheid SWOV, Leidschendam.

Platt, C.V., Clayton, A.B., Pringle, S.M., Butler, G., et al. (2003). Road safety education for children transferring from primary to secondary school. Road Safety Research Report No.35. Department for Transport, London.

Raftery, S.J. & Wundersitz, L.N. (2011). The efficacy of road safety education in schools: a review of current approaches. The University of Adelaide, Centre for Automotive Safety Research (CASR), Adelaide.

ROSE 25 (2005). Road Safety Education in all 25 EU Member States: inventory and compiling of a European good practice guide on road safety education targeted at young people; Final report. European Commission, Brussels.

Schagen, I. van & Rothengatter, T. (1997). Classroom instruction versus roadside training for traffic safety education. In: Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, vol. 18, nr. 2, p. 283-292.

Schoot, F. van der (2006). Inventarisatie verkeersonderwijs op de basisschool in 2006. Periodieke Peiling van het Onderwijsniveau (PPON). CITO, Arnhem.

Thomson, J.A., Tolmie, A., Foot, H.C. & McLaren, B. (1996). Child development and the aims of road safety education: a review and analysis. Road Safety Research Report No.1. Her Majesty's Stationary Office HMSO, London.

Tolmie, A., Thomson, J., Foot, H., Whelan, K., et al. (2003). Training children in safe use of designated crossings. Road Safety Research Report No. 34. Department for Transport, London.

Twisk, D.A.M., Vlakveld, W.P. & Commandeur, J.J.F. (2006). Wanneer is educatie effectief? Systematische evaluatie van educatieprojecten. R-2006-28. Stichting Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek Verkeersveiligheid SWOV, Leidschendam.

Vissers, J.A.M.M. (2010). Checklist verkeerseducatie: Kwaliteitsindicatoren voor het beoordelen van verkeerseducatieprogramma's. Advies- en ingenieursbureau DHV, Amersfoort.

Vissers, J., Betuw, A. van, Nagele, R., Kooistra, A., et al. (2005). Leerdoelendocument permanente verkeerseducatie. TT04-056. Traffic Test BV, Veenendaal.

Wegman, F. & Aarts, L. (eds.) (2006). Advancing Sustainable Safety; National Road Safety Outlook for 2005-2020. SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research, Leidschendam.

West, R., Sammons, P. & West, A.. (1993). Effects of a traffic club on road safety knowledge and self-reported behaviour of young children and their parents. In: Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 25, nr. 5, p. 609-618.

Zeedyk, S.M., Wallace, L. & Spry, L. (2002). Stop, look, and think; what young children really do when crossing the road. In: Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 34, nr. 1, p. 43-50.

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01 Nov 2012