Children and motorists need to be extra careful on Halloween.

Of all the frightening things school children associate with Halloween, crossing the street should be counted as one of the most dangerous.

In Canada, getting hit by a car is a leading cause of injury-related death among pedestrians aged 14 and under. The most frequently reported child pedestrian action that results in injury or death is crossing at an intersection, according to Safe Kids Canada; September and October are peak months for such incidents.

Psychology professor Barbara Morrongiello, director of U of G’s Child Development Research Unit (CDRU), focuses on developmental issues during the critical early childhood years. In addition to injury prevention, she has led studies on eating disorders, child and family adjustment to chronic illness, identifying risks for obesity and developing family-based approaches to prevention of obesity.

With funding of almost $500,000 over four years from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and some $350,000 over four years from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, she assembled an interdisciplinary team of U of G and University of Waterloo computer science and psychology students and faculty members. Together, they developed a groundbreaking virtual reality (VR) system to learn more about how young children cross streets and how we might teach them to cross more safely.

“In the classroom, children are instructed to cross at corners and at crosswalks, and they are taught the meanings of the coloured traffic signals, and yet their increased knowledge does not necessarily inform their behaviour when they are crossing the street,” she says. “One reason for this is that the children do not have the opportunity to practice crossing the street on their own in a safe but realistic traffic environment. Although school children may stop, look and listen properly, they often make dangerous mistakes, like stepping out at the wrong moment, because they are not good at co-ordinating information about traffic distance and speed.”

Barbara Morrongiello

A question that especially interests Morrongiello is whether kids can self-correct or take evasive action if they realize they have made a mistake.

Wearing a headset with a tracker on the top that modifies his perspective as he turns his head, a boy is fully immersed in a 3-D environment. He sees a typical residential neighbourhood with real trees and houses lining the street down which a car is coming. Instructed to cross the street when he thinks it’s safe, he takes a step forward and then instinctively jumps back – the car is too close after all.

Morrongiello observes: “Taking evasive action is a skill that may improve as children get older. They may learn through practice if it’s the right time to step off the curb and to maneuver more easily when their perception and motor skills are better developed.

“With cognitive development comes an improvement in multitasking or dividing one’s attention among competing distractions, like talking to a friend with one eye on the traffic light across the street and another on the moving vehicles on the road.”

In Morrongiello’s laboratory, children participating in her study are also given game-like tasks on a computer to test their ability to maintain attention and their short-term memory, like recalling where people appeared on the screen in order to catch spies. Other abilities she measures include how well the children retain visual information, anticipate what comes next and perceive distances.

“They have fun, but come away with a strong sense of the value of being careful,” she says.

“Mike Corbett [PhD candidate] and I are also examining if children can be trained using a simulated traffic environment. In order to improve children’s behaviour in many different kinds of traffic situations, they need to be able to practice crossing the street in a realistic, yet safe setting, which is the benefit of using a VR system. Heightened realism may make such training more effective so what they learn can be more readily implemented in real life. Children like to try something a little challenging, so we give them a variety of situations. They may experience a close call, but no child gets hit.”

If a child starts to cross at the wrong moment, or if the child isn’t crossing fast enough to avoid being hit, the VR car screeches to a halt and honks. The computer program monitors the child’s starting point and pace as well as the vehicle’s distance and speed and estimates the time to collision.

By providing feedback on how to judge traffic flow, Morrongiello hopes to teach children to cross the street more safely. “We aim to teach them what to look for; what constitutes a risk,” she says.

The high-tech VR system took two years to build. “There is a reason it hadn’t been done before,” she notes. “Our VR system was a complex project, partly because it was not intended to be a tool for research purposes alone. We planned to develop the software in a way that makes the program come alive for kids and at the same time, makes the system user-friendly enough for school boards and for boys’ and girls’ clubs. Training is required to use the system, but not so much that it’s intimidating.

“I hope this can have a positive impact in the community. Adults need to be able to assess a child’s actual skills for crossing the street safely. We also don’t want children to think they can manage if they are not really capable. But it isn’t easy to know if and when a child is truly ready to handle crossing the street alone. Educators and parents need to know what indications to look for, the predictors of success. We think that this VR system will help in achieving this goal.”

Children between the ages of six and 10 are at high risk for severe injury if they get hit by a car due to their size relative to the force of the vehicle. Morrongiello collected data on six- to 12-year-olds initially, but intends to extend her research to include older children and adults.

“The approach of Halloween may remind us to tell our kids to be careful, but protecting their safety and well-being is a going concern all year round,” she says.

For Parents:

Parents interested in registering their child to participate in the virtual reality study are invited to contact the Child Development Research Unit at  or 519-767-5033.

Parents may also be interested in an online training program that teaches older siblings about effective supervision practices when “keeping an eye” on younger children. Safe Sibs was developed by Prof. Barbara Morrongiello and PhD candidate Stacey Schell.

“We’d like to find out if youngsters who complete the Safe Sibs program show any improvement in either their knowledge of supervision or in their actual supervision practices,” Morrongiello says.

A Safe Sibs trial is currently underway and information is available on the CDRU website.