23 July 1998
The Demon Car in a World of Strangers/07-23-98
On the third day of the school holidays, the roads are eerily empty. But,
argues Graham Lee, that isn't the reason why he would abolish the 'school-run'
Children should be encouraged to travel to school on their own. This week's
Transport White Paper aims to cut down on car dependency, criticising the
parents who make a twice-daily peak hour run to ferry their children to and
from school. This apparently accounts for a quarter of all peak hour
traffic. In the government's drive to end Britain's 'love affair with the
car', these trips are an obvious target.
The trend to taxi children to school is a distinctly new one. Times were
when kids were expected to make their own way to school. In 1971, before
stranger danger, paedophile panics and children's rights, more than three
quarters of school children travelled to school alone. Today only one in
ten children under the age of ten travels by themselves, a situation
largely motivated by parents' fears for their children's safety. However,
the tendency for parents to overprotect their children today is potentially
a greater problem, stultifying their development into independent adults.
Children should not have to grow up in mortal terror of the world around
them. The passage into adulthood is retarded if they are wrapped up in
cotton wool and discouraged from acting independently.
Despite encouraging children to travel to school by themselves, the
proposals unveiled by deputy prime minister John Prescott for alternative
'safe routes' for children walking and cycling to school may serve to
further exacerbate their fears and anxieties. More lollipop men and women,
bike sheds, cycle routes, school buses and voluntary escort programmes
sound all well and good, but the underlying motivation is distinctly
suspect. Drawing up schemes to shepherd children safely on their way can
only raise alarm at the supposed dangers lying in their way, as if the
roads to school are filled with evil men intent on abducting them. The
plans for 'safe' transport routes come at a time when Jack Straw, the home
secretary, is reportedly producing 'safety packs' advising parents on how
to deal with the 'danger' of paedophiles. This is despite the extraordinary
rarity of crimes against children. These scare-mongering tactics ill befit
a government apparently committed to allaying the public's fear of crime.
The paranoid nightmare that there are bogeymen at every street corner
preying on our children should not be given any further credence. In fact,
the more the government claims to be trying to allay the public's fear of
crime, the more it actually serves to reinforce it. The priority to
'improve the safety and security' of children is a misguided one, given the
largely irrational basis for parents' fears. Rather than challenge these
fears, however, the government is encouraging them, with its constant
emphasis on the importance of 'safety'.
Today, children are healthier, safer and more secure than ever before, but
society is gripped by a morbid fascination for extraordinary dangers and
perils. Thus, instead of encouraging children to grow up, we are cosseting
them; instead of giving them confidence, we are instilling them with fear.
While the move to abolish the school run is motivated more by the
government's campaign against car culture than its concern for children -
it is children's growth into independent adulthood that will suffer.
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