Why Do Parents Drive Their Children To School?

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WHY DO PARENTS DRIVE THEIR CHILDREN TO SCHOOL?

CHAPTER SIX CAR VERSUS OTHER TRAVEL METHODS

The preceding chapter of this report examines the reasons why parents and children do not make use of a range of alternative travel methods, such as walking, cycling and bus for the journey to and from school.

As the many factors identified indicate, there are a large number of reasons why these alternative travel modes are not favoured, especially when compared with the use of the car. However this analysis, as presented, ignores some of the arguments in that cars themselves offer benefits which are not associated with other travel methods. In the interests of completeness it is important to outline some of these benefits here and this forms the first sub section of this chapter.

In the next sub section we attempt to draw together an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the different travel methods, taking account of differences in the relative importance of these for different age groups of children.

6.1 THE BENEFITS OF CAR TRAVEL

Discussions with the parents taking part in the research reveals that far from using their car due to an inability to get their child to school by walking, bus or cycling, parents actively choose this form of travel because it offers them a number of clear benefits. Those identified that pertain directly to the use of the car are as follows;

6.1.1 Time pressures

Most parents, particularly those in employment or with children attending several different schools, cite time pressures as being their prime reason for driving children to school. They perceive the car to be the travel mode which offers the most efficient method of delivering children to school, allowing maximum flexibility in terms of all the family's travel needs in the morning.

6.1.2 Protection from the weather

Given the climate in this country and the lack of daylight at certain times of the year, the car is a more controlled and safer environment in which to make the journey to school. It is notable that during the summer term, there is perhaps greater potential to try a non-car journey and this should be a consideration in the timing of any initiatives to encourage parents and children out of the car.

6.1.3 Cost

Despite the fact that daily use of a car does incur petrol costs and considerable wear and tear, parents do not appear to take these factors into consideration when driving their children to school. For most, the cost of the journey is discounted by the fact that the car will be used for some other purpose as part of the same journey - whether for travelling to work, shops or visiting friends. In the eyes of many parents they are making the most efficient use of their car by trip chaining in this way.

6.1.4 Peace of mind

Safety is of paramount importance to parents, expressed in terms of both road safety and personal safety. Often the perceived danger from other road users is highly exaggerated and while parents acknowledge this, they do not accept that car travel can be a danger too. Exploration of this issue in the group discussions revealed that most parents are unaware of the statistics relating to the dangers associated with different forms of travel ( see chapter 3). They also reject the statistics as invalid on the grounds that they relate to averages and, as drivers, they themselves are 'better than average'. Hence, their children are safer with them in their car, than anywhere else.

Parents feel entirely responsible for the safety of their children and they perceive a number of dangers on the journey to school from which the car offers protection. The types of danger identified have been discussed already in relation to the other travel modes and cover personal safety issues and danger from other road users. By delivering children safely to school, parents believe that they are showing themselves to be good parents. This builds their self esteem (the role that the car plays in this is, of course, to gain this esteem at minimal inconvenience to the parent).

6.1.5 Bonding

As mentioned already, for some parents the journey to school is a chance to spend some quality time with their children. The journey to school - however short - provides a welcome opportunity for contact between parent and child and gives an opportunity, in the closed environment of the car to discuss plans for the day.

6.1.6 Specific circumstances

In a small number of cases, parents cited circumstances specific to their locality or situation which can also impact upon driving children to school, providing an incentive to do so. These include :

  • Parking restrictions in Edinburgh - parking restrictions within the residents zone system oblige them to remove their cars from residents' parking spaces or single yellow lines by 8.30am between Monday and Friday. The time at which they have to move the car coincides with the time at which children need to leave home for school and this makes it practical to drive the children a short distance to school.

"I used to walk my girl to school - it's only a short distance but these days I have to move my car early in the morning to get it legally parked and so I drive my little girl to school at the same time. It doesn't really make sense, I probably spend as long walking to the car, moving it and driving to school and I know it would be healthier to walk, but I will have to move my car anyway…."
Parent, P1-4, urban school

  • Availability of the car - by taking her child to school by car and not returning home until her husband had left for work, one mother was able to take advantage of the car for the rest of the day. Thus, she was totally in favour of driving her child to school!

The two main benefits of using a car for the school journey are the perceived level of safety afforded to children and the convenience of being able to use the highly flexible and efficient car at a time of day when parents are themselves often highly pressured.

Beyond these advantages, there are a range of additional advantages associated with car use, arising directly from the use of the car itself, or more indirectly arising from weaknesses associated with other travel modes. The following analysis looks at the advantages and disadvantages of the alternative modes of travel when compared with travel by car.

6.2 COMPARISON OF ALTERNATIVE TRANSPORT MODES

The following two tables summarise the points made in the preceding text to show the relative strengths and weaknesses of the alternative travel options for getting to school. Of particular interest is the variation by the age of the child as this helps set the scene as to how messages might be tailored to different age groups.

6.2.1 Benefits associated with different ways of travel

As table 6.1 shows, a number of benefits are common to many of the alternative modes of travel and some are unique to non-car modes. This reflects a general consensus of those attending the group discussions and highlights the positive (and negative) aspects of each mode of travel.

Table 6.1 Positive messages of different transport modes

Age of Child

Walking

Cycling

School Bus

Public Service Bus

Car

Exercise/health

P1 - 4

two ticks

X

P5 - 7

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

Quality time with children

P1 - 4

two ticks

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

S1 - 4

X

tick

Independence

P1 - 4

X

X

tick

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

tick

tick

Time saving

P1 - 4

X

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

Cost saving

P1 - 4

tick

X

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

tick

Social contact

P1 - 4

tick

tick

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

tick

Safe

P1 - 4

tick

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

Environmental impact

P1 - 4

tick

tick

tick

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

tick

tick

Key: two ticksbenefit likely to be strongly accepted.
tickbenefit accepted.
X would not be considered for this age group.

The benefits identified in the table that are not also associated with car travel are

  • Exercise / health messages
  • Building independence
  • Cost savings
  • Social contact with friends etc
  • And lack of environmental impact

These benefits are associated quite widely with walking and cycling and with the use of school bus services, and they should be considered as positive ways in which to promote the attractiveness of these options. In particular, for younger children, the exercise and health message could have significant impact if it is built into, and associated with, wider 'teaching' on the desirability of developing a good exercise ethos at a young age.

One other argument that could have a strong influence on the younger age groups is the quality time argument when associated with walking children to school.

For the youngest age groups, it would appear that walking represents one of the most viable alternatives to travel by car, as it brings these additional benefits and is more feasible than some of the other alternatives - other parental commitments not withstanding. These messages should be directed at the parent, as for this age of child the choice is firmly with the parent (although children can exert some influence).

Amongst older children, there is a wider range of options available and both walking and the use of school bus services offer perhaps the most potential in terms of positive benefits vis a vis car. The research indicates that parents begin to accept the right of their child to choose how to travel to school at around age 11 and so messages can be targeted to older children as well as being reinforced by appropriate messages targeted at parents

6.2.2 Problems to overcome in relation to different ways of travel

The more extensive table 6.2 attempts to summarise some of the problems associated by parents with alternative ways of travelling to school.

Table 6.2 Weaknesses to be addressed

Age of child

Walking

Cycling

School Bus

Public Service Bus

Distance limitation

P1 - 4

tick

P5 - 7

tick

S1 - 4

tick

Equipment loads

P1 - 4

tick

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

Traffic congestion near schools

P1 - 4

two ticks

two ticks

two ticks

P5 - 7

tick

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

tick

Lazy/tiredness

P1 - 4

two ticks

two ticks

P5 - 7

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

Peer pressure 17

P1 - 4

tick

P5 - 7

tick

S1 - 4

tick

School facilities

P1 - 4

tick

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

Danger from strangers

P1 - 4

two ticks

two ticks

two ticks

P5 - 7

two ticks

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

tick

Time pressure

P1 - 4

tick

tick

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

tick

Vehicle safety

P1 - 4

tick

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

Cost

P1 - 4

tick

P5 - 7

tick

S1 - 4

tick

Reliability

P1 - 4

tick

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

Accessibility

P1 - 4

two ticks

tick

P5 - 7

tick

tick

S1 - 4

tick

tick

Key: tick a weakness.
two ticksa more significant weakness.

Many of the weaknesses are common to the various alternative modes of travel and, in that some common solutions are also available, this means that specific actions such as 'traffic calming' solutions can have a benefit for a range of travel modes. Some of these are likely to have most impact in terms of the fears expressed in relation to younger children. However, undoubtedly all age groups would benefit.

Thinking around the range of weaknesses listed, there are various packages of measures that can help alleviate these weaknesses. Specifically:

Lockers at school

  • To help resolve the problem of walking or cycling with equipment or to allow wet clothes to be stored away.

Traffic free zones in and around schools

  • To minimise feelings of danger from traffic congestion

Positive messages about the benefits of alternative methods of travel

  • To counter peer pressure and laziness

Drop off zones

  • To help where time pressure is important, distances are quite extensive or where bus services are inadequate. These will help protect the traffic calmed area around the school.

Adult supervision

  • To minimise concerns about stranger danger and 'police' the traffic free and drop off zones

More frequent and accessible bus services

  • To offer a viable alternative to car travel. In addition, some form of discounting might be useful as a means of overcoming resistance to bus travel and to encourage trial.

Overall, there is evidence that some differences exist in the strength of the concern as it relates to younger children and these should be addressed in future approaches as detailed in the above analysis. Differences between urban and rural areas are not so pronounced. There is some evidence that the viability of bus travel may differ between urban and rural areas, but in terms of cycling and walking the same concerns are expressed.

This chapter has attempted to draw together the various arguments around the use of the car as a mode of travel to school and to examine how alternative methods might offer advantages. The analysis suggests a range of messages that might support the use of alternative methods and a range of measures that would need to be put in place alongside these positive messages to enhance the potential for non-car modes.

It is important at this stage to recognise that parents generally have several reasons for choosing driving over other travel options. As such there is no simple fix. Because of the multiple layering of reasons that exist, it will be difficult to persuade many parents to stop driving, and so some 'partial' solutions may be needed instead.