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Protecting our most vulnerable road users

Researchers say many thousands of children could benefit from a new system that helps ensure their safety as they go to school. SAFEWAY2SCHOOL brings together the latest communications technologies to, among other things, warn drivers of the presence of children near bus stops.

Tags: Road

The trip to and from school is a daily routine for millions of children around Europe. Anna Anund of VTI, the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, says, “Going to and from school by bus is a multimodal trip where children are at risk, especially as unprotected road users, and there is clear evidence of the need for a door-to-door perspective to improve their safety.”

While definitive statistics about children injured in road accidents on their way to school are lacking, sources seem to indicate that most such incidents occur between the home and school bus stops, with a peak frequency in the afternoon.

The EU-funded SAFEWAY2SCHOOL (SW2S) project, coordinated by Anund, is looking at new solutions for a holistic and safe transportation service for children, from their door to the school door and vice versa. “We are looking at tools, services and training for all key actors in the transport chain,” says Anund. These include:

  • Tags for children that communicate wirelessly with bus stops and/or driver support systems, indicating the presence of children in the vicinity;
  • Intelligent bus stops, with bus stop signs that light up to signal to passing drivers that children are near;
  • Bus driver support systems, aimed at making it easier for bus drivers to know who is on board, as well as to plan routes and monitor speed and fuel consumption;
  • A dedicated application for smartphones, aimed at improving communication among users, for example to notify parents when children arrive at school;
  • A training kitto enhance risk awareness and explain how to use the new technologies;
  • A bus-stop inventory tool, making it easier to determine and assess bus stop position, from a safety perspective;
  • An in-vehicle information and warning system, for non-bus drivers, triggered when approaching an intelligent bus stop with children present.

Pilot studies, testing the above-mentioned elements separately, as well as all of them together as a complete system, were carried out at five different sites – in Sweden, Italy, Poland, Austria and Germany. Anund says the results were positive, showing cost-effectiveness and high user acceptance for the system as a whole, and also for most of the individual sub-elements.

“However,” she warns, “no chain is stronger than its weakest link, and this is also true when it comes to school transportation. The most essential improvements identified were related to school travel plans, signs at bus stops and improved bus driver education.”

Ready to go

“SW2S is based on already existing technologies that have been adapted to school transportation applications,” Anund explains. The results of a cost-benefit analysis indicate that potential users should start with the simpler and lower-cost elements that deliver the most rapid improvements in safety and security. “This will prepare the ground for the next step, i.e. the complete system,” she says.

One issue that has been raised is the question of privacy of users, especially children. Anund responds, “Before starting the pilot studies, we had a deeper look at the security and privacy issues. A first review identified off-the-shelf solutions such as encryption, ‘virtual private networks’ and firewalls. Important topics were raised such as user access, data security and system acceptance.”

Anund says a security policy was proposed that covers safe data storage, auditability, availability and passwords. Confidentiality, integrity and authentication are also important aspects when transferring data.

Within the project, a new methodology, based on a checklist approach, was developed with the purpose of identifying issues regarding security and privacy. One of the results was that we decided to remove some system functions for older children, in order to gain heightened system acceptance.”

While it is crucial to protect the system from third-party access, this will not eliminate all security and privacy issues, since system users and administrators themselves can pose an ‘inside threat’. It is therefore important to ensure that user access is properly restricted and that administrator actions are logged.

It can work

Anund believes the potential benefits are real: “If we look just at the separate parts, for example the bus-stop signs, thousands of children will benefit from this. In Sweden alone, we have 250 000 children travelling to and from school on busses, and the majority of them from unmarked stops. The situation is more or less the same in other countries.”

She adds, “Children are our future and as such they are a very important group. But everyone will benefit. A system designed for the most vulnerable users – in this case children – will most certainly also be a useful system for all other travellers.”

SW2S is the result of the collaborative efforts of a diverse set of stakeholders, including SMEs, universities and research institutes. “The consortium has been outstanding in several aspects,” says Anund. “It has contributed to knowledge exchange between countries and has increased our understanding of the daily life of children in Europe. It was an honour to coordinate the project.

“We appreciate that the European Commission decided to fund SW2S, helping to guarantee a sustainable, safe and secure future transport system. The project would not have been possible without this support.”