Urban Update 14 August 2015

Download Urban Update 14 August 2015

Should we design the public realm around children?

The summer holidays bring a time where children are free from school, and sometimes left on their own.  For a tiny minority this freedom ends in tragedy.  A harrowing case occurred at the end of July where a seven year old child, who had been allowed out on his own for the evening to use local streets and a nearby park, was found dead on a building site he had entered.  Such incidents raise the question as to the age at which it is safe and lawful for children to be left on their own, or allowed out to travel or play unsupervised.   It also touches on the duties and liability of people and organisations involved in designing or managing streets, parks and public spaces.   But the question is by no means easy to answer, if indeed there is an answer.

Neglect - Figures revealed earlier this year by the UK’s press association claimed that a parent is arrested every day on suspicion of leaving one or more of their children at home alone.  The grounds for arrest are cruelty or neglect, such as failing to protect a child from physical harm or danger.  The Crown Prosecution Service sentencing guidelines recommend up to 24 weeks imprisonment for short term neglect or ill-treatment, or a single incident of short-term abandonment.   According to the Association of Chief Police Officers the law is clear: that you should never leave a child at home if they would be left at risk.  If that applies to a child left at home, then it would be illogical not to apply the same test to a child and its use of the highway or other land: that a child should not be allowed out unaccompanied if they would be at risk.  The question then follows, at what stage in life do children using a street or highway cease to be at risk?    The following points are relevant:

Judgement of speed of traffic - People judge speed of through the perception of “looming” - the rate at which an oncoming vehicle gets bigger.   Younger children don’t have these skills and find it hard to distinguish between a car travelling towards them at 20 mph as opposed to one travelling at nearly 50 mph.   It means that younger children will inevitably misjudge the speed of a fast approaching vehicle, and a collision will inevitably occur should they choose to cross the road.   

Assessing Risk  -: some child psychologists suggest that most under-eights simply don’t have the cognitive ability to predict danger or assess risk. 

Risk of injury and the speed of impact - there is incontrovertible science and evidence that severity of injuries is directly related to speed of impact – children have a greatly reduced risk of death and injury when traffic speeds are low. 

This might lead some people to conclude that a rule of thumb would be that children are at reduced risk, when aged over eight, and where traffic speeds are below 20 mph and possibly significantly below 20 mph..

Who is responsible for the safety of a child?  Children are recognised in law as having limited “capacity”.  Depending on the age of the child, they are not responsible for their actions.  Those people who have a young child in their care, however, do have a responsibility for the child’s actions.  In the case of Lewis vs Carmarthen County Council (1955) a four-year-old child escaped from a council run nursery and ran into the path of an oncoming lorry.  The driver of the lorry swerved, hit a road-side object and was killed.  His wife sued the education authority, and at the House of Lords it was held that the education authority owed a duty of care to motorists to protect against the risk of a young child entering a public road.  However drivers bear a responsibility too: they have a common law duty to have regard to their own safety and the safety of other road users – it is they who, by driving a vehicle at speed on the highway, create the danger in the first place.

Does the owner or manager of land have any responsibility?  Here there is a complex situation.  There are broadly three different types of land: 

workplaces – such as building sites, which are covered by Health and Safety at Work legislation and where there is a positive duty to ensure health, wellbeing and safety, so far as reasonably practice;

private land – where occupiers liability applies and a duty to take reasonable care that people do not suffer injury through the condition of the premises or through things done or not done on them, except where an individual has knowingly brought the risk upon themselves; and

public highway  – where the precedents point to the highway authority having a duty of care to both careful and negligent road users when it exercises its powers to create or maintain highways, but no positive duty to exercise those powers.  This duty of care would also apply to the designer of a highway.

But there is other legislation concerning the welfare of children.  Section 10 of the Children Act 2004 places positive duties on the local authority to create arrangements to improve the wellbeing of children in its area, including protection from harm and neglect.  The Children Act 1989 places duties on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need and to provide services for children in need – need defined as “unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development”.   Some might contend that it would be illogical for such positive duties not to extend to the role of a council as highway authority.

Few people would contest the importance for the health and development of children that they should be given freedom – freedom to meet friends, to explore the areas where they live, and to play exercise and enjoy life.  But when a majority of adults consider roads too dangerous for cycling, and many parents are reluctant to let their children out alone, there is clearly a problem.  And with around 20 percent of children entering into adulthood already obese, there is clear evidence of harm.

A judge who in 2014 sentenced a couple for the neglect of their five children described them as "inadequate, stupid, stubborn and incompetent" parents.  The very same criticisms can be levelled at society and government.  We need a substantial rethink about the way in which we design and manage highways, and the way we perceive the rights of children and adults. Practices and attitudes are still locked into a pervasive 1930s vehicle-centric mentality.  Perhaps instead of thinking about vehicles, speed limits, and design speed, we should think more about children and “design age”.