When traveling with children safety is no accident, especially when you’re overseas. At home, you intuitively sense hazardous situations. Away from home, you must retrain your brain to be on the lookout for hazards in new surroundings and during unfamiliar activities.
1. When checking into a hotel room, crawl around on your hands and knees. (You read correctly.) See the room from a child’s perspective. Are there reachable unprotected electric plugs, lamps that can be pulled down, or coffee tables with sharp edges, for example? Check the bathroom. Can children who bathe and shower by themselves at home operate the plumbing without scalding themselves? Can they lock themselves into the bathroom? Check the balcony. Can infants fit under the railing or between the supports that hold the railing? Do the same checking when staying with friends and family
2. Stop at visitors’ centers in rural parks. Information is available on safe activities, areas to avoid, hazards to look out for, weather forecasts, and emergency telephone numbers. In such parks, children are injured by falls, cooking fires, and getting too close to wild animals. Many children have their own cameras. Don’t let them open car windows and lean out to take pictures when large animals are nearby. Camera-related accidents also occur from going too close to thermal pools or cliffs to get better views.
3. Check the safety features of new activities. Snowmobiling, scuba diving, and parasailing, for example, require training, proper equipment, and age or size limits. Get safety information before you go. Virtually all sport activities have national associations with websites. Many accident-prone activities take place in areas with no medical services.
4. You are the safety inspector at amusement parks. There are almost no mandatory federal safety standards for the rides and state and local government oversight is often murky. Don’t let kids “please, please, please” you into letting them go on rides not intended for them – even though you’re there to please them. Be especially cautious of rides at small, seasonal parks, even more so if the rides are part of a traveling carnival. Observe rides before allowing children on them.
5. Appoint a designated “toddler watcher” at family gatherings. Especially at outdoor ones. Everyone wants to play with infants and toddlers. But when “everyone” watches them, no one is in charge, and toddlers can wander or crawl away. When not overseeing your child yourself, make sure that someone responsible is, and that they personally return the child to you.
6. Be wary of pets. No dog is totally predictable, especially ones not accustomed to children. Two-thirds of dogs that bite have no history of aggressive behavior. Toddlers may innocently incite dogs by suddenly running towards them, arms flailing and making happy noises – behavior dogs may interpret as threatening. Pets are edgy during large gatherings: owners spend less time with them, many unfamiliar people are present, and there is much activity and noise.
7. Teach young children to “Hug a Tree.” If children lose sight of you outdoors, they usually panic, look all around, and then run as fast as they can in whatever direction they happen to be facing, greatly increasing the chances of hurting themselves and complicating locating them. Teach them to stay put and that you will be right back. Avoid using the word “lost” (it seems to scare them.)
8. Have children wear life vests when playing near the water. Most children who drown or near-drown were not supposed to get wet. They wandered away from family picnics, were walking along a canal, or slipped crossing streams, for example. At pools and beaches, check if lifeguards are present (don’t rely on signs) and whether the guards are attentive. Also check the depth of the water before diving. Stated depth may not extend far from signs. Partially filled pools reduce depths.
9. Think safety at waterfront facilities. Are older children roughhousing? Are waves too high? Drowning and falling while climbing on slippery rocks are the leading causes of death and serious injuries in many national parks. Toddlers who have learned how to swim with an adult standing next to them generally panic when they fall into the water and no adult is there.
10. Stop driving when children become distractions. Crying infants and unruly children are as distracting as texting and using cell phones. For drivers this compounds the fatigue of long hours on the road, driving after long flights, and driving on unfamiliar roads. The more children in the car, the greater the likelihood of problems occurring. Take a break if children need your attention.
Your family is picnicking in a rural park about a half hour from where you parked your car. A thunderstorm sneaks up on you. What do you do?
1. The risk of being struck by lightning in the US is small: one to two per million people per year. However, this adds up to more than 400 serious incidents (often involving permanent neurological injuries) and about 50 deaths. Children are at the same risk as adults. Factors slightly increasing the risk include being in Florida, Texas or Colorado; summertime; late afternoon; rural and mountainous terrains; and being in, on, or adjacent to a body of water. Florida is considered the “lightning capital” of the country.
2. Heed thunderstorm warnings. A “thunderstorm watch” means conditions are favorable for severe weather to develop in an area; a “warning” means severe weather has been reported in the area. While meteorologists can usually predict thunderstorm activity for an area, they cannot always pinpoint where a storm will pop up and the track it will take. This results in many false alarms and makes some people weary of warnings, often ignoring them, especially when they have long-standing plans for the day.
3. Recognize the signs of an approaching storm. The sound of thunder is proof positive that lightning is sufficiently close that it can strike you imminently. While most strikes are preceded by rapidly darkening skies, strong winds and heavy rain, they can occur when the sky is blue and rain is absent. Note that in some mountainous areas thunderstorms are especially common, weather reports may be less accurate, mountains may hide approaching storms and dampen the noise of thunderclaps, and shelter may not be readily available.
4. Don’t wait to see if the storm will pass. Lightning can strike when the time from the lightning flash to the thunder crash is less than 30 seconds. Most lightning strikes involving people occur in the first ten minutes of the storm. Investigations of lightning-related injuries show that many victims chose inappropriate shelter when better ones were available or were minutes away from appropriate ones.
5. No outdoor place is totally safe from lightning. Ideally, find shelter inside solid, non-concrete four-wall structures with a roof. Concrete often contains metal wires that can attract lightning. However, the presence of electrical and telephone wiring and plumbing improves safety; wires and plumbing conduct electricity into the ground. This makes small buildings without plumbing or electricity less safe. Enclosed cars, large caves and narrow valleys are also protective.
6. Most lightning victims are hit in open fields or under a lone tree or a tree that towers over other trees. Being under many short trees gives some protection. Avoid being around flagpoles, light poles, tents, bleachers, picnic shelters, baseball dugouts, ski lifts and porches. Never use a rocky overhang for shelter.
7. If caught in a storm, avoid being the highest point. Get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges or peaks. Crouch low, with as little of your body touching the ground as possible. Do not lie down. Lightning causes electric currents along the top of the ground that can be deadly over 100 feet away. Separate family members to reduce the number of people at risk. Running may help reduce the threat from ground current as it limits the time both feet are on the ground at any one time. Get out of and away from bodies of water.
8. Don’t hold objects in your hands that may contain metal. Golf clubs, fishing rods, and umbrellas can attract electricity. Stay away from wire fences, clotheslines, metal pipes, rails and other metallic objects. Cellular phones are safe to use during a storm.
9. Know when the “all clear” takes effect. The last portion of a storm is almost as hazardous as the onset. Lightning can strike after the main storm has passed and the sky is blue and there is no rain. Wait at least 30 minutes following the last roar of thunder and flash of lightning before resuming activities.
10. Miscellaneous. Up-to-the minute apps report weather activity for virtually the entire globe. People who have been struck by lightning are not “electrified” and are safe to touch. Being in your own home is not 100% safe in a thunderstorm. Stay away from windows and do not use corded telephones. See http://www.weather.gov/iln/lightningsafetyweek for detailed information.
Well-planned family trips to other countries are “surprisingly” safe and healthy, say surveys by travel medicine professionals. If problems do occur, they are more likely to be due to accidents rather than illnesses – even though there is far more information available on keeping kids healthy than on preventing accidents. The leading category of accidents is motor vehicle-related, followed by waterfront-related and falls. This posting deals with motor vehicles. Future postings will deal with the other two.
1. A comparison of the risk of motor vehicle-related deaths per 10,000 vehicles per year in representative countries. (Source: World Health Organization.)
|UK||3||Russia||19||Note that these figures are meaningful only in comparing countries. Especially in poor countries, the risk for visitors is far less than for local people. Visitors generally have access to safer transportation than do locals.|
2. Don’t drive immediately after long flights through multiple time zones. Jetlag, fatigue and lack of sleep interfere with cognitive thinking and reaction times, which are especially essential for driving on unfamiliar roads. Cranky, jetlagged children further worsen the mix. (Even at home misbehaving children are responsible for numerous accidents.)
3. Consider leaving the driving to others. Reputable local drivers can deal better with language issues, local driving customs and road conditions. Rules regarding passing, signaling and headlight use vary from country to country. Make clear to your drivers that you are in no hurry. Request safe routes rather than the fastest ones. Check vehicles for safety features for young children. Take bus tours only with reputable travel agencies.
4. Know local regulations regarding children. Rules vary from country to country. In many European countries it is mandatory to have a reflective vest for each child (and, sometimes, for adults). The vests must be worn in emergencies (if children have to stand at the side of the road, for example). Most countries have laws regulating by age, height and weight the use of baby restraints, where children may sit, the type of seatbelts that are permissible, and when airbags must be deactivated if a child sits by one. Note that height and weight measurements may be stated in centimeters and kilograms.
5. Familiarize yourself with local road conditions. In poor countries, most roads are badly designed, not properly maintained or patrolled, and have few traffic signs. Many drivers lack basic driving skills. Law enforcement is lax. Emergency medical services are inferior or nonexistent. There are ever more cars without road improvements. Driving at night is especially hazardous; some drivers turn off headlights to save fuel.
6. Don’t underestimate the hazards of driving on the “wrong” (opposite) side of the road. Problems arise when you enter a street/highway, make turns or pass other vehicles. Traffic circles (“roundabouts”), common in Britain, can be disorienting. Generally roundabouts have no signal lights, traffic moves counter clockwise, and you exit the traffic circle on the left side of the road. Avoiding errors takes total concentration.
7. Rent cars from well-known international companies. If possible, do so before leaving home.Such car rentals are more likely to have well maintained cars, provide you with the necessary documents, and supply information on what to do in case of breakdowns. Check if they have appropriate children’s restraints available or if you must bring your own. Generally, larger cars are safer but are difficult to maneuver on narrow roads.
8. Quaint local transportation may be hazardous. Riding three-wheel taxis, small open vans, pedicabs and other inexpensive, colorful local vehicles make for memorable family photos but are generally unsafe. They dart around cars and trucks and expose your family to toxic fumes from other vehicles. You must hold small children on your lap – which is dangerous if the vehicle tips over (not a rare occurrence) or is involved in a collision.
9. Think twice before allowing teenagers to use motorized bicycles, scooters and mopeds. These take practice to operate, especially on overcrowded roads. Helmets may not be available. In Bermuda, where motorized bikes are popular, visitors sustain far higher rates of injuries than locals. Mishaps occur even at low speeds. Check lower age limits for teenagers to ride such vehicles.
10. Children who cross streets safely at home may need help overseas.Crossing streets that may have no crosswalks, traffic moving on the opposite side of the road, motorbikes to dodge, and drivers who may disobey traffic signals requires consciously rethinking of well-ingrained (“kneejerk”) reactions.
Some amusement park rides are not amusing. Every year about 9,000 children under the age of 14 years get an extra ride – to the emergency room. Many more mishaps are treated at first aid stations, by private physicians or by parents. Rides intended for children younger than four years of age account for about a quarter of the ER visits.
1. Amusement parks are not particularly hazardous. Most injuries are minor. Only a small number require hospitalization. Playgrounds, winter sports, and waterfront activities may cause more mishaps per child participant. Serious accidents make headlines, in part because they are so rare.
2. Most amusement park accidents are preventable. You the parent is the ultimate safety inspector. Never let kids “please, please, please” you into letting them go on rides not intended for them – even though you’re there to please them. There are no mandatory federal safety standards for amusement rides and state and local government oversight is often murky. Be especially cautious of rides at small, seasonal parks, even more so if the rides are part of a traveling carnival.
3. Obey posted age, height and weight restrictions. However, operators base safety guidelines on standard height and weight tables, not taking into account the great variability in size of children at a given age, and not considering their maturity and impulsivity. Children younger or smaller than posted limits can slip out of restraints; those older or bigger can overload rides. Pay close attention to rides that use single lap bars for multiple riders. These bars fit closely only against the largest passenger in the car, allowing smaller riders to stand up during the ride or slip out under the bar.
4. Match rides to your child’s temperament. Don’t coax children to try rides if they are reluctant to do so. Don’t let older children do so. Children who have queasy stomachs may become ill on merry-go-rounds and roller coasters. Vomiting ruins the day. Excessive darkness, present on some rides, frightens some children and causes them to act irrationally, placing themselves and others in danger.
5. Observe rides before allowing young children on them. Rides should have safety instructions posted. Operators should be friendly, attentive and help children on and off. Observe if children exiting the ride are happy. If a part of a ride is out of sight, ask if there are hidden sharp curves, sudden drops or excessively “scary” features. Ask if a ride can be stopped if a child becomes unruly or overly frightened.
6. Check “kiddie” rides. These rides move slowly, have no ups and downs or sharp curves, and are very safe for seated, cooperative toddlers. However, many rides have no or inadequate safety restraints. Moreover, toddlers are unpredictable and impulsive, and may become “spooked’ for no apparent reason. They may get up during the ride, fall out, or become entangled in inappropriate safety devices.
7. Instruct children in safety. Accidents occur when children fail to grasp or obey safety rules. Tell them not to clown, to keep arms and legs inside, to hold on tightly with both hands, and to never get up until instructed. If they become frightened they should stay in their seats, close their eyes, hold on tight, and, if they wish, scream out loud. Alert them to stay seated if rides stop before reaching the unloading platforms, not to retrieve objects they may drop off the ride, and if they feel dizzy or weak when exiting, to sit down on the ground and wait for assistance.
8. Skip trampolines. “The incidences of injuries jumping on trampolines outweigh any benefits,” says the American Academy of Pediatrics. Falling off, crashing into other children, or jumping incorrectly can result in strains, sprains, fractures and other injuries, including potentially serious head and neck injuries. Trampolines should only be used in supervised programs, with safety guidelines strictly followed.
9. Allow children to use zip lines only where you are reasonably sure that the staff is well trained and attentive and the equipment appears to be well maintained. Zip lines are soaring in popularity, resulting in several thousand ER visits yearly, with children younger than 10 years of age accounting for almost half of the injuries. Most injuries are due to falls. There are few safety guidelines for the operators. (However, backyard zip lines may be even more hazardous than commercial ones.)
10. Resources are available for children with special needs. Many larger parks offer reduced admission fees, no waiting at rides, quiet areas for resting, communication devices, and wheelchairs, to mention just a few accommodations. Such parks also have well equipped first aid stations. Call the park’s Guest Relations for details. Check the national association devoted to helping families with your child’s disability. Most such associations have websites that include information about travel and visiting amusement park-like attractions. Also check the web for blogs written by parents about their personal experiences.
Watching fireworks is a traditional family activity all over the world and great fun. But setting off fireworks should never be a family activity and is anything but fun for the thousands of people injured each year. Moreover, all fireworks, professional-sponsored ones and the so-called backyard types, are associated with little known hazards that may especially effect young children.
There is no such thing as safe fireworks, say safety experts. Even ones considered to be safe – sparklers, for example – can reach temperatures above 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a misconception that when mishaps occur only handlers are the ones injured. Especially in the hands of amateurs, fireworks can explode unexpectedly or take erratic courses when launched, landing among bystanders, even those standing at considerable distances. And since fireworks attract families, many of the injured are children. The most common injuries among spectators are burns from falling segments. Burns may be sufficiently severe to require hospitalization. Eye injuries are also common. Don’t allow children to pick up segments of fireworks that land on the ground. The segment may still be ignited and explode or be in the form of hot embers.
When fireworks light up in the sky, they pollute the environment. They release tiny particles (suspended particulate matter) which when inhaled may damage lungs. The fumes contain sulfur dioxide, heavy metals including lead, and other toxic materials. The specific composition of a given firework depends on the desired effect. Individuals with respiratory problems and young children are especially at risk. The reason that fireworks are not considered a major health issue is that exposure to them tends to be limited.
Fireworks most often are set off near bodies of water, to allow many people to see them and for safety reasons. In the US, fireworks are responsible for tens of thousands of fires annually (rarely major fires involving loss of life). Moreover, fireworks pollute the body of water with the same chemicals as pollute the air.
Fireworks are primarily designed to produce a large amount of noise in the form of a sudden bang, sufficiently loud to damage hearing. The noise can also “spook” dogs, possibly damaging their hearing, and cause them to react inappropriately, injuring themselves or running away.
Safety experts suggest that you keep your family “way back” or “at a distance” from fireworks, though these terms are not defined. Most problems arise when people are too close to backyard fireworks. When possible, keep your family out of the way of the smoke emanating from fireworks.
Taking children out of school for family vacations is illegal in many (probably most) school districts in the US, Canada, Great Britain and Australia. Most school districts have specific policies regarding absences for reasons other than illness. Some districts allow a limited number of days (usually fewer than four) for such activities – if permission is obtained beforehand. Parents who ignore the rules can be summoned to court and fined and children may be obliged to attend summer school. However, such punishment is rarely carried out. In Great Britain, attendance officers sometimes check airports and railroad stations in the days before vacations for children traveling while school is still in session.
Yet surveys suggest that parents fairly regularly ignore the rules. On Google, the topic “Taking children out of school for vacations” has 169,000,000 responses! Here are some representative responses, from parents, educators, pediatricians, and psychologists.
● The leading reasons for parents taking children on vacation during school time are significantly lower travel costs and a parent’s vacation time falling while school is in session.
● The decision to take a child out of school should be based on the grade the child is in, the child’s scholastic abilities, whether essential lessons will be missed, the child’s feelings about missing school, the philosophy of the teacher(s) on the subject, and the school’s policy. Likely, children in lower grades will miss little essential work – though this is an assumption.
● A child being absent from school disrupts the class and increases the workload for teachers. Some children are out for a week or two for travel. For the family, a child out of school is one absence. For the teacher of a class of 20 or 30, there may be numerous absences during the school year. This means repeating lessons and assigning and checking makeup work, slowing learning for everyone. The class should not be held back for absences that are not essential.
● I wonder if the people who think that it is a mortal sin to take children out of school for well thought out family trips are aware that a cornerstone of modern education is that all children do not learn the same way. Many high schools today have buildings where the students spend little time and where books and blackboards merely supplement other forms of learning.
● What are you teaching children when you swap a week of school for a sunny beach? They learn that attendance, and by extension, education, isn’t a priority. Schooling needs to come first, and nothing, not even deals on a Disney cruise, trumps attending school.
● I teach in a top rated junior high school in an affluent community. I am appalled by how often parents tell me (they don’t ask me) that the student will be absent for an upcoming trip. And I am appalled by how often the parents and students tell me that the trip is “educational” when in fact it is absolutely not. We teachers laugh about these lies in the teacher’s lunchroom. The lies show a total lack of respect for teachers.
● Travel should be an integral part of a child’s education. A semester overseas is becoming the norm at colleges and universities. Younger children should be encouraged to travel, obviously during vacation time if at all possible. However, taking meaningful, short trips – to historical places or capital cities, or with exposure to a different culture, for example – trumps missing a few days of school.
● Children have more than three months of vacation a year. Surely, parents should be able to find time for travel and visiting relatives in that time frame. Perhaps travel during vacation time is a bit more expensive, but these are facts of life, a lesson that young children have to learn to become responsible adults.
● When you take children out of school for unauthorized reasons, do you level with the teachers or do you make up excuses – a family emergency, for example? Once you get started on the road of deceit with the school, and worse, if your kids are old enough to understand what you are doing, what appears to be merely a few days of playing hooky (unauthorized absence) ends up being a big lie.
● I am a forty-year old mother. My two children attend junior high school. Somewhere in my junior high school years my father attended a conference in Athens, Greece. I was taken out of school to go along, probably for a week or so. When I think of my junior high school years, Athens is the first thing that I remember.
● In our school, the administration is supportive of short trips during school time. When the children return they are expected to give a talk on their experiences and bring back pictures and typical objects to show. Possible negative fallout from this is that other children are envious of the ones traveling. Remarks heard – probably emanating from their parents – are that the kids who travel are rich and spoiled.
● A significant issue in our school district is teachers “calling in sick”, usually before a school holiday, to extend their time off. Not a good example for parents and children.
● One advantage of home schooling children – an option that seems to be increasing in popularity – is that you can take your children anywhere at any time. Their education travels with them.