Austin’s traffic is pretty bad. And it only promises to get worse. Density is increasing without the infrastructure to keep up with it. Thanks to our handheld devices, that density is being confounded by distraction. There is an intersection near TMAA that regularly has very serious accidents. Several times a week, the lights of emergency vehicles flashing are visible after someone raced to make the light, lost track of their lane because they were looking at their phone, or tried to escape the gravitational pull of dense traffic by darting in and out of the other cars.
Intersections represent one of the most dangerous elements on any given road. Intersections connect different directions and speed. They are also convergence points for different types of traffic. Cars mix with pedestrians and bicycles.
To help people navigate the dangers of an intersection, civil engineers mark the pavement to describe boundaries. They put up signs to explain the rules. And traffic lights are often installed to tell everyone exactly what to do and when to do it.
Introducing Chaos to Improve Safety
Typically, the busier the intersection, the more these safety features are employed.
Except in a handful of cities in Europe. Not only are they not applying boundary markers, signage or signals, they are removing them altogether. It is a fascinating experiment that, counterintuitively, is actually making these intersections safer.
How is this possible? Well, the results are actually pretty straightforward and obvious once you see it in action. Motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians all approach the intersection to find a large empty space filled with chaos. Traffic is entering the intersection from several directions at once, then swirling around the center before ejecting outward again.
So why don’t the cars crash or the bicyclists and pedestrians get run over? Because everyone slows down and pays very close attention to what is going on around them. They interact with each other via eye contact and gestures.
Now consider the behavior of motorist at the intersection with all of the accidents described earlier. The type of traffic is uniform (only motor vehicles). The lanes are clearly drawn and the signage is very clear. The lights are relatively well-timed, so no one gets stuck for too long waiting on red.
When people approach the intersection and the light is green, they don’t have to consider other traffic because they know it is being held back by a red. Except when it isn’t because someone is trying to beat a changing light.
Because the traffic type and direction is so uniform, the demand for drivers’ attention is dulled. The screen of a device can become much more tempting. The other day, I walked past cars lined up at another red light near TMAA. Every driver was looking at their phone.
Imagine instead, that you are approaching an unmarked, open intersection like the ones in Europe. You can’t approach it at speed. You have no idea what to expect at any given moment when you enter such an intersection, so you naturally slow down. Looking at your device while cars, bicycles and pedestrians swirl around you seems ridiculous. Every moment you are in that intersection demands your full attention.
Those open intersections require us to engage our risk assessment skills. We slow down, engage more deeply and make moment-to-moment choices that could have grave consequences. As a result, these intersections are seeing an aggregate reduction in accidents.
When we are driving in environments where everything is spelled out for us in an effort to keep us safe, this system of risk assessment often does not turn on. The consequences of a high-speed collision can be devastating. Clearly, when someone endangers themselves and others by racing a changing light or looking at their phone because they got a notification, they are not effectively calculating the risk of a an in-the-moment impulse against the life-changing tragedy of a crash.
Are Playgrounds Too Safe?
Healthy risk assessment is essential on both the societal level and the individual level. But culturally, we have made choices that undermine the development of this skillset. This is something that I have seen shift significantly over my lifetime.
One thing that has driven this is the changes in playgrounds. They have become safer for children. And this may be doing much more harm than good.
When I was a kid, all slides were made of metal. The slide, the stairs, the turret at the very top. The whole thing was metal. Underneath the slide there was at best gravel or grass. At worst, pavement. There were metal jungle gyms held together with exposed nuts and bolts. There were merry-go-rounds. Where I went to elementary school, there were old tires partially buried in the playground, but we mostly just played on “The Slab.” The Slab was simply that, a large square piece of pavement planted in the middle of the playground. Every recess, our teachers would have us line up “to go to The Slab.”
All of that is gone now. Slides are made out of smooth, gently curved plastic. The ground is covered with rubber or a deep layer of wood chips. Every nut and bolt on a playscape is carefully designed to be flush with the smooth surface of the equipment or capped with rounded covers. No merry-go-rounds and certainly no “The Slab.”
It turns out the horrifying, catastrophic playground injuries that these changes were meant to prevent were actually extremely rare. On top of that, the primary major injuries are not really prevented by these changes. Severe head injuries are rare. Long bone injuries (a broken arm or leg) are much more common. Not only do the changes in equipment and playing surfaces not prevent this type of injury, these injuries have become more frequent since playgrounds have become “safer.”
How can this be? First of all, if a playground is “safe” to fall on, a child is less likely to avoid falling. Kids are more likely to play with riskier behavior because the risks are less obvious. If a jungle gym is over concrete, kids are less likely to hang upside down from a top bar than if it is over a padded surface. But a fall from such a height can still easily break a bone. It is like approaching a busy intersection at full speed because one knows cross traffic has a red light.
Additionally, all playgrounds are basically the same now. There are differences in scale and aesthetics, but the equipment is pretty similar anywhere you go. So novelty is gone. Without novelty, children are less likely to slow down and evaluate.
The Killer Slide of Death!
There was a park near my house growing up that had several swings, slides and tons of stuff to climb on (all metal, of course). I can still remember the biggest slide. You had to learn how to manage your speed on this thing because it was very tall and very fast. It had a upward bump toward the bottom that would launch you and cause you to land painfully if you didn’t pay attention. There was sand at the bottom to soften the landing, but it was usually brushed away by kids sliding, revealing the cement underneath.
Kids got banged up every day on this thing. But that was a good thing. I saw kids get scraped and bruised, but never seriously injured. There is no denying that this was a risky piece of equipment, but kids recognized that the second they saw it. It was so tall, every kid who first looked at it had two immediate and totally conflicting responses.
First, they were filled with excitement! What an adventure to climb to the top of that thing. It was so high! And we all knew we’d be going faster than a jet plane on our way down!
The second response was caution. This was going to be fun, but it is so high. And fast…
The kids who got banged up often took time off of the slide. But they would watch other kids and learn from them. Kids would talk, bragging about their last ride or some trick they figured out.
Kids would learn risk management through observation, experimentation and from each other. Much like people entering those European intersections.
Kids Aren’t Learning How to Take Risks—That’s A Good Thing, Right?
We are increasingly denying children the opportunities to engage risky behavior and learn from those experiences. This does have consequences.
The first is underestimating the consequences of risk. Children on a playground with a soft surface are less likely to consider the dangers of falling. The other day, I watched a boy who was 8 or 9 years old playing on a playscape outside a restaurant while it was drizzling. The playscape was built atop a pile of softwood chips and seemed very safe. But the rain made every surface wet.
The boy never considered this when sprinting across an elevated bridge. It was obvious he was moving too fast and that a fall was inevitable. When he fell, he fell fast and hard. Luckily, he landed flat on his back, something that was very painful but not something that would injure him.
Chastened, the boy very slowly and quietly went back into the restaurant and didn’t come back out.
It was pretty clear just looking at the playscape that it was very slippery and that if someone were to climb on it, they should do so with caution. None of this seemed to occur to the boy. He underestimated the consequences of risk.
As children get older, this becomes increasingly dangerous. Children and teens begin to go places alone. They begin to interact with people online. The encounter peer pressure. They start to drive. Each of these is a necessary part of growing up. And each represent enormous leaps in consequences if the risk is not properly evaluated.
Children need lessons in risk management that are appropriate to their developmental level. As parents we want to expose them to as much risk as possible, while keeping that risk within a range of consequences that are appropriate for their developmental level.
Small children can understand the rule that they should look both ways before crossing a street, and so they should learn it as early as possible. But it is not until they are older that they can comprehend the consequences of being hit by a car if they use poor judgment, so until then, they need supervision.
No Rules Recess—The Benefits of Total Chaos
At Swanson Primary School in New Zealand, the principal has taken a radical approach to teaching children risk management. He removed all rules from recess but one: do not kill anyone.
Seriously. That is the only rule. And the playground is absolute chaos. Kids running around doing whatever they want. Some on bicycles and scooters (even going off jumps!), some climbing trees and fences, building totally unstable forts out of scrap wood and pipes, getting into fights and jumping off of things with no shoes on.
What is amazing is that concentration and confidence is way up in class, bullying and injuries are down. How? Because the children are relieving their need to learn through play in highly stimulating ways. They are learning how to make better decisions by being exposed to the consequences of their choices. And they are learning how to resolve interpersonal conflict (when fights do break out, bigger kids tend to show up and break things up).
There is clear benefit to this approach, though it would be challenging for a school in the US to pull off. In New Zealand, there is no liability for such an experiment. Accidental injury is covered by the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), a government entity that runs New Zealand’s no-fault accidental injury.
If a child is injured at Swanson, the ACC would cover the expenses. If a US school tried the same approach, they would run the risk of being sued and going out of business.
The Risk of Not Taking Risks
Clearly, childhood has changed in the past 30-40 years. Fears for the safety of children, many of which have not been founded in real threats, have led to very different parenting strategies and a fundamental shift in social expectations around what is okay for kids.
This is having an impact on children learning good judgement and becoming self-sufficient, independent adults.
In my next article, I offer a detailed look at the impact these changes are having on kids and present parenting strategies that allow kids to engage risk in healthy ways.