Schools are supposed to be places of manners and discipline, but the streets around them can be dangerous for children because of bad behaviour by drivers, a new study by Toronto researchers suggests.

The study found dangerous driving at more than 100 Toronto public elementary schools, including such offences as double parking, speeding, dropping children off on the opposite side of the street from the school, and blocking the vision of other motorists and pedestrians.

"Driving your kid to school – sure, it protects your child from being hit by a car, but it puts all the other kids at increased risk," said Alison MacPherson, one of the study's authors and professor at York University's School of Kinesiology and Health Science.

Using police data, the study by researchers at the University of Toronto, York University and Sick Kids Hospital found that 411 children were hit by vehicles near 118 elementary schools over a 12-year period from 2000-2011.

Meanwhile, a 2013 city of Toronto pedestrian collision summary found that there are approximately 150 pedestrian-motor vehicle collisions involving school-age children each year. To curb that, the Toronto Catholic District School  Board is creating a pilot project that would designate safe drop-off areas away from schools. The board is also encouraging students to walk together for a block or two to get to class.

Walking 'better for everybody'

Many of the study's investigators are themselves parents with children in the Toronto District School Board. They noticed the dangerous habits around the schools their children attended and decided to investigate.

Two trained observers counted the number of children walking to school on a single day in 2011. They repeated the count a week later at 10 per cent of the 118 schools in the survey to make sure their numbers were reliable.

One observer stood at the main car drop-off area and another at a location where they could easily count pedestrians. The observers also conducted audits of traffic and driving behaviour during and after the morning drop-off period.

Dangerous driving habits were found at 88 per cent of the schools surveyed. The collision rates around those schools was also 45 per cent higher than at other schools surveyed.

"We think kids should walk to school. I think that's a fundamental thing," MacPherson said. "It's better for the child, it's better for the environment, it's better for everybody."

Tale of two cities?

At the 12 per cent of schools that where dangerous driving wasn't seen, the majority of students walked to school.

MacPherson says some of the schools in the downtown core, about 90 per cent of kids walked to class. That's likely because of differences in the built environment in the city versus suburban areas.

"It's not really a tale of two cities because in what we call the inner suburbs there are lots of schools where kids walk, too," she says.

For drivers who either are unwilling to walk, feel they live too far from the school, have time constraints or have children unable to walk due to disability, for example, the study says traffic calming, walking guards, narrower streets and other such strategies can help.

Another solution the study authors would like to see implemented is designated kiss-and-ride zones where parents driving their children to school can do so in a way that doesn't put other kids at risk.  

MacPherson admits she too has driven her kids to school on occasion. "I think anybody who has a car has," she says.

"I've certainly seen the behaviour and I try very, very hard not to participate in it."