(Photo © J. Maus)
On Monday, the Bike Walk Tennessee blog reported about an absurd incident that highlights the deep, cultural barriers to active transportation we face in America.
Last Thursday, Teresa Tryon, a mother of three from Elizabethton, Tennessee got a knock on her door from a local police officer. The officer had seen Tryon’s 10-year old daughter riding her bike to school and considered the activity so unsafe that he took it upon himself to stop the young girl, put her in his patrol car, and take her home. Once there, he explained to Ms. Tryon that she shouldn’t allow the girl to ride unsupervised.
Ms. Tryon now faces an investigation by Child Protective Services into “child neglect” charges for the simple act of allowing her 10-year old daughter to bike to school.
For more on this story, I contacted child biking expert Robert Ping. Ping has been involved with Safe Routes to School for decades — from the mean streets of Oakland, California where he weaved through gang territories to find safe places for kids to ride, to the Bicycle Transportation Alliance where he headed up bicycle education programs. Today, Ping is the director of the State Network Project for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.
According to Ping, who has become a spokesperson for this case, the Tryon’s are an experienced bicycling family. The daughter in question has been a cyclist since she was three year old, she has completed a bike safety course, she always wears a helmet, the family rides together frequently, and Ms. Tryon also rode the route to school with her to make sure it was safe.
“We live in a society where many people feel that children should be locked up in their parents’ care at every single moment to avoid any and all risk.”
— Robert Ping, State Network Project Director for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership
When I hear about cases like this, it seems like I must be missing something. Surely there’s more to the story, I think. How could this even happen?!
I asked Ping if the case is legit. “This is indeed a real situation,” he said, and he added that unfortunately, he’s not even surprised it happened.
According to Ping, as Safe Routes to School efforts increase in the US, people who have not seen walking and biking in their communities for decades (including school principals, school board members and police officers) sometimes react by, “establishing a policy or threatening parents, assuming that new walkers and bicyclists equals new victims.”
Liability concerns sometimes fuel the reaction, he says. “Often they are also worried about the liability of a potential crash. We live in a society where many people feel that children should be locked up in their parents’ care at every single moment to avoid any and all risk.”
But there’s a tradeoff to this reaction, warns Ping: “Children lose their quality of life through a lack of independence, they have no ability to learn through experience or how to have unstructured fun, and they often don’t know their own neighborhoods and don’t get to be free range kids anymore!”
And Ping hasn’t even mentioned the real risk: a lack of physical activity. “Inactivity is becoming one of the most life threatening aspects of kids’ lives,” says Ping. Abduction (a commonly cited fear) or car collisions are statistically minute risks when compared with what Ping calls, “the growing childhood obesity epidemic.” A third of all kids in the United State are now overweight, and 15 percent are obese.
“I consider these situations an opportunity to catalyze Safe Routes to School in the local community. For example, this morning I met with a group of Tennessee advocates and agency staff along with the mom, as part of our monthly Tennessee Safe Routes to School State Network Project team meeting. We came up with a list of resources and a game plan for bringing together Elizabethton’s elected officials, police, agencies and advocates to hear more about what Safe Routes to School can do to increase safety while also increasing physical activity and giving children the opportunity to be kids and be outside in their neighborhoods.”
If you’re facing a situation like the one in Elizabethton, here’s the list of resources/solutions they discussed at that meeting:
- provide bicycle and pedestrian safety education for kids,
- provide training for police on state laws governing walking and bicycling,
- partner with the local bicycle police squad,
- apply for state funding for sidewalks and other Safe Routes to School program solutions,
- improve the traffic flow around the school,
- give advice from our legal partners about how to ensure due diligence to avoid liability,
- set up a community Safe Routes to School task force with local decision makers,
- partner with other programs to involve the whole community in making it easier and safer to walk and bicycle.
Based on the handful of situations like this that have come up across the country in the past few years, Ping feels it’s unlikely it will progress up the chain of command. “In all of those other cases the officer’s supervisor didn’t let it go any further,” he shared, “I hope that the Elizabethton police, DA and Child Protective Services realize that national attention to a legal case against Ms. Tryon isn’t worth the negative media attention and pressure from bicycle advocates, and that they take advantage of our upcoming offer to sit down together and map out a strategy that will allow kids to be outside and be as safe as possible.”
I hope so too.
UPDATE, 7:45 pm: According to the Elizabethton Star, the issue has been resolved. Check their article, Girl can still ride bike to school, police recommend safer route
UPDATE, 9/2 at 9:00 am: Ms. Tryon has contacted me to say the issue is far from resolved and that the Elizabethton police are just trying to reduce attention on the issue. Stay tuned.