Children At Play signs have been rearing their ugly yellow heads in affluent neighborhoods since at least the 1950s. The stick-figure kids depicted on these signs chase errant balls or inexplicably ride dated looking bicycles, often beneath all-caps words like “SLOW” or “CAUTION.” The intent of these signs is clear; the utility, less so. Are they a heads-up, or a demand to reduce speed? Do suburbs without the signs not have children at play? Are there really that many kids chasing balls into the street? Why does every kid run to the left?
Still, the biggest question the signs elicit should be why they still exist. Decades of studies suggest drivers have no clue how to react to these signs and there’s no evidence that they affect driver behavior in a useful way or reduce the number of pedestrian deaths. “Children At Play” signs may be, in short, the best example of family-friendly, suburban security theater this side of a subdivision rent-a-cop.
“Psychologists have told us this for years: Signs generally don’t affect any sort of behavioral change,” Seth LaJeunesse, research associate at Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, tells Fatherly. “So it’s not surprising that those signs don’t do enough to move the needle.”
That’s a shame because ineffective “Children At Play” represent a wasted opportunity to actually diminish the pedestrian deaths rocking quiet suburbs with sickening regularity. More than 5,000 pedestrians are killed by cars each year in the U.S. and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests children are particularly vulnerable. Researchers have demonstrated again and again that speed is the main factor in these fatal crashes. The 10 percent chance of severe injury to a pedestrian hit by a car going 15MPH, skyrockets to 50 percent when the car hits 30MPH. “We have really good studies that show that, if we lower traffic speed, that results in the much lower incidence of severe injuries,” Robert James Schneider, who studies urban planning at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, explains. “In particular, for kids within neighborhoods, speed is a key factor.”
In theory, this justifies the signs. In reality, the signs simply don’t work.
What neighborhoods actually need are proven traffic interventions—the sort of proven speed-reducers that urban planners, civil engineers, and traffic researchers have demonstrated slow down drivers. Installing these sorts speed prevention tools in the place of “Children At Play” signage would likely make a considerable difference — at speed.
For this reason, several states have guidelines that specifically call out those signs for their uselessness. “Children At Play signs may make parents feel more secure but they don’t work and they carry no enforcement value,” according to Colorado and Wyoming’s Institute of Transportation Engineers. “Studies made in cities where such signs were widely posted in residential areas show no evidence of having reduced pedestrian crashes, vehicle speed or legal liability,” the Florida Section of the Institution of Transportation Engineers adds. Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration’s manual of best practices for doesn’t even dignify the signs with a mention.
“It’s pretty telling that the signs are not in the manual,” Jeffrey LaMondia, professor of civil engineering at Auburn University, tells Fatherly. “This sign really doesn’t provide clear guidance. That’s probably the main reason Federal Highway doesn’t recommend it.”
One issue with “Children At Play” signs is that drivers tend to ignore static road markings, unless those signs scream out their messages. “The things that do affect speeding provide what we call ‘friction,’ a sense that the environment is telling you to slow down. Narrower lanes, overhanging trees, parked cars,” LaJeunesse says. “Signs themselves don’t really do enough to grab the driver’s attention.” What does grab a motorist’s attention is peer pressure. One study in Gainesville, Florida, demonstrated this point when researchers posted a sign claiming that 67 percent of drivers yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Remarkably, drivers who passed that sign were significantly more likely to yield. “It’s social norm messaging,” LaJeunesse says. “It communicated to drivers that it is expected in this community that you will yield to pedestrians.”
If forced to design an effective “Children At Play” sign, LaJeunesse would insist it be “very visible, with a really large font, but no CAPs—people can’t read CAPs—and it would relate to social norms,” LaJeunesse says. “Something akin to ‘Drivers in Our Community Slow Down for Kids’.”
As it stands, however, “Children at Play” signs are not just ineffective—they’re dangerous. “Children At Play” signs provide a false sense of security to parents (who often stump for these signs at town hall meetings) and give drivers the false impression that areas without these signs do not contain children at play. And there’s the issue of “sign clutter”—unnecessary road signs dilute the messages of the more important ones. “Children at Play” signs make stop signs and pedestrian crossing signs, both of which are far more effective, less effective. “Crossing signs give you a clear indication of exactly where you should be looking,” LaMondia says. “But with Children At Play signs, you’re always supposed to be watching for children in the roadway. How are you supposed to change your behavior?”
That’s the question many scientists and planners are asking on a broader level. What can be done to stop pedestrian fatalities and what is causing them? It’s clear from the research done to date that lack of sidewalks and poor police enforcement don’t help; speeding motorists and jaywalking pedestrians don’t mix well. “But bad street design, bad engineering, that’s number one,” says Charles Brown, who studies transportation planning and policy at Rutgers University.
A poorly designed street is “one that doesn’t prioritize the safety of pedestrians by placing sidewalks on at least one side of the road, or that serves as a conduit for speed, with very wide lanes,” Brown says. Indeed, studies have shown that narrow streets, especially those with curb extensions and a serpentine, winding layout can force drivers to slow down. “I’m a fan of speed bumps,” Brown says. “But speed bumps are in response to bad street design. If the street was designed correctly the first time around, there would be no need for speed bumps.”
Brown advocates a transportation policy known as “Complete Streets”— “roads that are designed, operated, and maintained with all users in mind, including children and people with disabilities,” he says. Crucially, complete streets are well-lit. “Lighting is a huge part of this,” Brown says. “Many pedestrians are killed during night time.” Schneider agrees that visibility is key to creating safer streets. “Improvements to intersection lighting have led to a 60 to 80 percent reduction in pedestrian crashes,” he says. “Not just in neighborhoods, but on major thoroughfares as well.”
Complete streets already exist in several cities, including New York City, Orlando, and Charlotte, and feature sidewalks, raised crosswalks, crossing islands, curb extensions, dedicated bicycle and bus lanes, and a host of traffic calming measures such as narrow, winding lanes.
Beyond signage and road design, public policy and education can go a long way toward reducing the risk of children and adults getting killed by cars. The Vision Zero program, a comprehensive initiative that involves community-wide changes in engineering, enforcement, and education, may be one reason why New York City pedestrian deaths reached an all-time low in 2017. And the federal Safe Routes to School program has made strides in helping students plan their daily commutes around a specific community’s most “complete” streets.
These sorts of initiatives are available to parents across the country and, coupled with better road design, really can protect children. But “Children At Play” signs cannot—and scientists agree that it’s time to retire those vague, cluttering eyesores in favor of proven interventions.
“Are ‘Children at Play’ signs an effective tool? I wouldn’t say we have any evidence of that,” Schneider says. “But through physical infrastructure changes, driver’s education, and traffic enforcement we can ultimately reach the goal that we all want — reducing that risk to pedestrians.”