New research at the University of Guelph is using virtual reality to uncover the risky strategies children use to navigate crosswalks and how they might be trained to cross more safely.

September is back to school time, and that means many kids are getting into the routine of walking to school. That new routine can be anxiety-inducing for some parents.

"We found that children pay more attention to distance of cars than speed, so when cars are far away, this creates problems because they assume they are safe," said Barbara Morrongiello, the Canada Research Chair in Child and Youth Injury Prevention.

"So they stop monitoring traffic as they cross, they walk slower, and the car winds up coming closer to them or hitting them."

Morrongiello's research used virtual reality goggles to create 3D virtual neighbourhoods, and positioned kids at the virtual curb.

The kids had to decide when to cross in different traffic situations, and Morrongiello and her team monitored things like the kids' walking speed, the path they chose and even what they were looking at.

Do as I say, not as I do

Morrongiello's research come to a few conclusions about why kids' crossings are riskier than adults, and why kids might get hit by cars.

First, they make poorer decisions when they are under time pressure, such as when they are late.

Barbara Morrongiello

Barbara Morrongiello's research is using virtual reality to find out why crossing the street is risky business for many children. (University of Guelph)

They also have problems picking safe movement strategies when in the middle of a road and can sometimes ignore cars that seem far away.

As well, the old adage, "monkey see, monkey do" applies to what kids learn about using the crosswalk.

"Children get exposed to all sorts of bad crossing behaviour, from adults, and teenagers and even other children who are risky crossers, and that makes it harder for them to understand and hold on to what the rules really are," Morrongiello said.

"Bad behaviour is sometimes successful, and that, I think, makes it harder for them to remember these rules and that they should be following them no matter what."

Children also feel they are safe in crosswalks at all times, and that means they sometimes might get hit by cars that they think will stop, but actually have not seen the child at all.

Parents overestimate children's abilities

Morrongiello's research found that parents often overestimate their children's abilities when it comes to using crosswalks safely, and her research now is focused on developing a set of "core behaviours" that parents need to impart on their children for crossing safely.

She currently has a new virtual reality system under development that she hopes will help train children in some foundational crossing skills to ultimately make them safer.

Those skills include things like picking a safe place to cross, watching traffic at all times, and how to judge distance and speed.

To hear the full interview with Barbara Morrongiello, listen to the audio labelled: Using virtual reality to help kids understand when it's safe to cross the street.