An interesting piece on the front page of our local newspaper in Assen this week, with a headline "Children from Drenthe must cycle earlier."
The article reads: Primary schools are opening on Monday. The holidays are over, and this is reason for Safe Traffic Netherlands to restart their "The schools have begun again" campaign.
Also in this region, children will be travelling to school in large groups for the first time. In September there is a peak in the number of traffic victims in the age group 0-14 years. A salient detail is that one third of these victims are on the way to or from school. Children are an unpredictable group.
The article goes on to explain that in 1972 the average age at which Dutch children went unaccompanied to school was six years. By 2006 this had risen to 8.6 years of age. The reason given by parents for this rise is that they find the conditions too dangerous. This is an issue of subjective safety of course.
The approach suggested by the safety pressure group here is different to what might be expected in the UK and other countries. They are suggesting that children should be allowed greater freedom earlier as more and earlier experience makes children safer on the roads: Practice in traffic is an important part of bringing up children.
VVN calls on parents to send their children to school by foot or by bike as often as possible. It is important to choose the safest route possible and to practice this route with your children. Children only learn by doing, and children become safer as they travel independently to school.
A safe road environment around the school is important. Other participants in traffic around the school play a part.
The view is that it isn't children who cause a problem but adults, and that children should be able to travel unaccompanied by the age of six. An average age of eight, as now, is a bit too old.
Preventing danger to children on the way to school and home again takes several forms, including banning cars from stopping near schools and providing cycle routes which are safe for children to use, even over quite long distances and in winter.
Veilig Verkeer Nederland has also been running spots on the radio about the danger posed to children by drivers:
The longest running TV advert in the Netherlands was is also from this organisation:
VVN are also the organisation which takes care of school cycle training in the Netherlands.
A comparison with Britain is interesting. In Britain there has been a much deeper drop in walking and cycling to school. Now only 12% of seven to 10-year-olds go unaccompanied to school and an enormous national media storm and threats of social services being called in occurred over the Schonrock's children after their parents allowed them to cycle to school unaccompanied. Read the family's own response here. The idea of sending children unaccompanied to school by bike is mainstream in The Netherlands, though of course children here benefit from infrastructure which supports that choice.
In other news, cycle training for children in England is apparently about to be cut altogether as the government considers scrapping "Cycling England", the organisation which for the last few years has been responsible for the "cycling demonstration towns" and other initiatives to support cycling. This comes as part of the austerity measures needed to help the ailing economy - not that the problems Britain currently faces were in any way caused by cycling. This makes no sense at all, of course, but sadly nor did many of the initiatives that Cycling England supported, as the late Chris Hutt used to point out.
Unfortunately, it looks a lot like business as usual for British transport policy. Initiatives come and initiatives go, and people keep forgetting that they've been let down time and time again. There's no real interest in achieving a higher rate of cycling, no overall picture of what is needed, and no consistency to carry on with any policy for long enough that it makes a difference. That's why cycling is flatlining in Britain.
Britain isn't the only place with a problem, of course. We campaign for the right of independent travel for children everywhere.
There are many other examples of school travel in the Netherlands on this blog. Unfortunately I must also point out that for all the good they do, VVN is also a bit too close for comfort to a certain Swedish car manufacturer and their dubious ideas about road safety. Another blog post explores the origins of Veilig Verkeer Nederland?.