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'Selective fatalism' in children's risk assessment

"Selective fatalism" is the term one academic coined to describe the human tendency to pick and choose between risks, ignoring some and fixating on others. In doing so, we often misjudge the actual danger posed by more pressing hazards. In the post-9/11 era, for example, many people fear flying but happily drive to work every day--even though airplanes are vastly safer than cars: in the past decade, just 153 people have died in U.S. commercial airline flights, while each year auto accidents claim 30,000 lives.

Children are not immune to selective fatalism. According to scholar Ruth Simpson, who writes about the social construction of safety and danger, parents try to cure their children of "irrational" fears (of the dark, ghosts, etc.) and emphasize real threats to safety.

Yet parents' fears for their children are often also irrational. A 2010 NPR report showed that parents' biggest fears for their kids were kidnapping, school snipers, terrorists, dangerous strangers, and drugs. In reality, the top threat to children is car accidents, followed by homicide, abuse, suicide, and drowning. Why such a discrepancy between perception and fact? Parents, like all people--children included-- tend to focus on the horrific (but often rare) events they see in the media. For adults, this includes grisly murders, kidnappings, and horrific plane crashes; for kids, it's monsters and boogeymen from storybooks and TV.

The result is that both parents and kids fret over the wrong threats. In 1999, the most recent year for which kidnapping statistics are available, 115 children were abducted by non-family members; zero were killed by school snipers; and zero perished at the hands of the boogeyman (we assume). Yet in this same year, there were nearly 800 child-car fatalities. Although that number has decreased markedly in recent years (down to 323 in 2005) thanks to the federal Safe Routes to School program, cars remain the greatest threat for young walkers.

Child pedestrians are prone to darting into the street from between parked cars. In part, they do this because it is hard for them to see oncoming traffic from behind those parked cars; but they are also still learning how to use their peripheral vision and to rolex replica watches use the information they see to identify oncoming cars, according to Safe Routes.

So how can parents keep their children safe on the streets? The Centers for Disease Control warns that children under ten years of age should always walk accompanied by an adult, as they are "developmentally limited when it comes to judging speed and distance accurately." Other advice from Safe Routes suggests that unaccompanied children:

  • Always walk on the sidewalk. If there is no sidewalk and you have to walk in the road, always walk facing traffic.

  • Wear bright clothing to increase visibility.

  • Cross only at corners or marked crosswalks.

  • Stop at the curb or the edge of the road.

  • Walk in groups; there is safety in numbers. Groups are more likely to be seen by drivers.

  • Stop and look left, then right, then left again, before you step into the street.

  • If you see a car, wait until it goes by. Then look left, right, and left again, until no cars are coming.
Slow Children Signs Statistically, cars are far more dangerous for children than any other hazard.

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