Children at Play (And at the Wheel)

My latest Slate column is up, examining the problems with “Children at Play” traffic signs (the headline, which is never the writer’s, may overstate things a bit…)

If the sign is so disliked by the profession charged with maintaining order and safety on our streets, why do we seem to see so many of them? In a word: Parents. Talk to a town engineer, and you’ll often get the sense it’s easier to put up a sign than to explain to local residents why the sign shouldn’t be put up. (This official notes that “Children at Play” signs are the second-most-common question he’s asked at town meetings.) Residents have also been known to put up their own signs, perhaps using the DIY instructions provided by eHow (which notes, in a baseless assertion typical of the whole discussion, that “Notifying these drivers there are children at play may reduce your child’s risk”). States and municipalities are also free to sanction their own signs (hence the rise of “autistic child” traffic signs).

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 at 9:09 am and is filed under Drivers, Traffic Psychology, Traffic safety, Traffic Signs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Responses to “Children at Play (And at the Wheel)”

  1. SteveL Says:

    There’s this sign from Banksy -designed to inspire fear

  2. SteveL Says:

    Incidentally, my road does have centre lane markings, but it’s biased so that the uphill side is wider. This is to provide space for bicycles and cars on that side, without painting a bike lane that would encourage people to cycle in the dooring zone. The narrower downhill side lets an assertive cyclist control the road on a hill where 20+ mph is trivial to reach on a pedal bike.

    We’ve also just fitted a zebra crossing, a pedestrian crossing where cars are required to stop for pedestrians. This has had the most benefit for traffic calming, though having been only in for a couple months, not everyone stops. It’s as if after driving a route for a certain number of years, drivers are either unable or unwilling to accept any changes in rights of way or priority. Has anyone done studies in that -the ability of drivers and others to adapt to change?

  3. gpsman Says:

    (Man, you cited the snot out of that article.)

    The rights of motorists to assume they arrived significantly sooner by racing TCD to TCD and/or not stopping for signs or before their RoRs shall not be infringed.

    “I been driving like this my whole life and I’ve never crashed”.

    That must be the same rationale for waiting for a walk signal (in a 25 zone with traffic going by at ~40) with toes hanging over the curb.

    There seems to be no method to convince most motorists that -they- are a hazard to themselves and others and/or that driving is a dangerous activity.

  4. Kevin Love Says:

    Great article! I like Tom Vanderbilt. What he writes always makes a good deal of sense.

    Now, of course, it is time to apply his argument to cycling. Everything that he has to say against “Children at play” signs applies equally to sharrows. And for the exact same reasons. They have no benefit and are a meaningless “feel good” response to political demands to “do something.”

  5. David Says:

    I’m fine with Sharrows, but they should be on all roads that don’t have bike lanes except for interstates.

  6. Daniel Says:

    I was always amused and intrigued by a sign I used to see everywhere in Quebec (examples here and here) with the picture of a boy laying on the ground, injured. The sign says “Watch out for our children, it may be …your own” (or maybe “this one may be …yours” referring to the picture).

    I don’t know if these signs are being phased out or if I just stopped noticing them (they’re kind of part of the scenery, you know…).

  7. Opus the Poet Says:

    I would like to see a sign warning of speed-sensitive land mines ahead set to blow up at (speed limit + 1) MPH! with some (simulated?) patched craters in the road about 100 feet past the sign.

  8. Blackdog Says:


    In your previous post “Department of Correlation” you lament that traffic safety engineers believe that motor vehicles and pedestrians can co-exist on low speed, low volume residential streets where on-street parking is restricted/prohibited. You note that there is an inverse relationship between parking and vehicle speeds and that parking acts as a “buffer” between cars and pedestrians — implying that that is the key to pedestrian safety.

    As I noted in the comments to that post, new urbanists have been making this claim for quite some time now. It is interesting how if a group makes a statement enough times that many people will start to believe it — even with no evidence to support it. Given how hard you work to cite evidence and promote science based conclusions I am surprised that you have bought into this so readily.

    Now, in your Slate column on Children Playing signs you reference “peer reviewed science” to support your claim that increase traffic speeds increase risk of injuries to children. Yet, if you read the actual study you cited it doesn’t really say that. The actual study can be found here: The key findings of the study are:

    a strong association between increasing risk of injury of child pedestrians and increasing traffic volume

    High density of curb parking was also associated with greatly increased risk of injury

    Transport policies that reduce traffic volumes in urban areas could substantially reduce rates of injury ofchild pedestrians

    Restricting curb parking at crossing points may also be effective at reducing risk

    Note that nowhere in the key findings does it associate reduced speed with reduced injury risk as you claim. In fact, it found a non-linear relationship between speed and injury risk.

    The ironic thing about the study is that it confirms the quote in your previous post that you took exception to. The study pretty much says that low volume, low speed residential streets with restricted or prohibited on-street parking can help pedestrians and motorists co-exist. Chalk one up for the traffic safety engineers.

  9. Michiel Says:

    The curious thing is that people that complain about speed, often drive too fast themselves. Or it’s the neighbours, so maybe they should talk with them first.

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