The national Safe Routes to School program promotes walking or bicycling to and from school as a way of increasing physical activity among youngsters, but there are few validated methods for measuring its success. Now, two tools developed by experts at Baylor College of Medicine can help determine how effective the program is in getting children to take the "active" route to school and whether those who walk do so safely.

A report on their work appears in the journal BioMed Central Public Health.

How did you get to school?

"The Safe Routes to School program is popular throughout the country, but there are few tools to measure whether it increases the number of students walking and bicycling to school or if the students are doing so safely," said Dr. Jason Mendoza, assistant professor of pediatrics-nutrition at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS) Children's Nutrition Research Center at BCM and Texas Children's Hospital and lead author of the study.

One tool developed by Mendoza and his colleagues assessed how accurately children describe the way they got to school. A written survey administered to elementary school students two times in a single day asked them one question: "How did you get to school today?" It gave students seven choices as an answer. Then their answers were compared to answers from their parents. Most of the children gave the same answers each time they completed the survey and their answers, for the most part, agreed with those of their parents. This showed researchers that this survey method would be a good instrument to measure the impact of the program.

Safety behaviors

The second tool used observers to measure safety behaviors. Mendoza and his colleagues chose eight specific pedestrian safety behaviors:

  • Crossed at a corner or crosswalk
  • Crossed with an adult or safety patrol
  • Stopped at the curb
  • Looked left-right-left
  • Kept looking while crossing
  • Walked and did not run across the street
  • Followed the traffic signal (if present)
  • Traveled as part of a walking school bus (a group of children wearing bright reflective vests and led by an adult)

Trained observers assessed the safety behaviors of youngsters at an intersection near a Houston elementary school. The tool the observers used was effective in determining if the children followed the safety rules.

Foundation for future measurements

Researchers will now be able to use these tools to measure the effectiveness of the Safe Routes to School programs and offer additional courses or learning tools for the programs, said Mendoza.

Others who took part in the study include Kathy Watson, Dr. Tom Baranowski, Dr. Theresa Nicklas, Doris Uscanga and Dr. Marcus Hanfling, all of BCM.

Funding for this study came from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Active Living Research Program, the National Cancer Institute, the Harris County Hospital District Foundation Children's Health Fund and the USDA/ARS.