Research has shown that children are getting less chance to play outside than ever before because parents are worried about them being killed or assaulted by a stranger, or run over. But experts are worried that such over-protection is turning children into couch potatoes and damaging their emotional and social development.
"Play is an important part of learning to co-operate and communicate properly with other children. There is an increasing tendency for parents not to allow their children to play so far away from home so the catchment area of safe places to play has shrunk," said Tim Linehan of the Children's Society, which is publishing research tomorrow with the Children's Play Council on play and parental fears.
"The fear of danger is greater than its reality. We have to take parents' fears very seriously but the real risk of violence towards children comes from friends and family," he said.
Recent research conducted by the London School of Economics has shown that traffic and so-called "stranger danger" are the two main concerns for parents. Only one in 10 parents surveyed thought that the streets where they lived were "very safe" for their children compared with more than half when asked about the neighbourhood where they grew up themselves.
But official statistics show that children are much more likely to be killed by a parent of caregiver than a stranger. Home Office figures show that between 1988 and 1997, 57 children were murdered by strangers, an average of six per year. This represents only 10 per cent of child victims.
The chances of a child aged one to four being killed by a stranger are less than one in a million and have fallen by a third since 1988.
But traffic does represent a greater danger. Road accidents are the major cause of death in children under 15 and children are more than 22 times more likely to be killed by a car when they are playing in the street than killed by a stranger.
The latest figures show that in 1997, 17,000 children under 15 were run over by cars while playing on the street. Of these 133 died and thousands were badly injured with head and leg injuries. More boys than girls, 65 per cent, were run over.
Charities welcomed the Government's initiative on home zones, but said that both legal changes to the law and additional money were required to transform Britain's residential streets into safe places for children.
"Hundreds of children get killed by traffic, thousands get seriously injured, but it is the millions who are kept indoors because of it who we are trying to help," said Tim Gill, director of the Children's Play Council which has been campaigning with Transport 2000 for home zones for over three years.
"Home zones are not just about child safety they are also about making residential areas safer for everyone and improving people's quality of life," he said.
Despite the development of unofficial schemes, such as one in Bonnington Square in Vauxhall, London, where the community has improved the street safety and reduced traffic on its own, the launch of home zones is the first official drive to improve residential streets.
The initiative follows similar schemes in Holland that have been successful both in improving safety for children and community life.
People living on streets with heavy traffic are more likely to suffer from chronic ill health, caused by traffic related pollution, noise and stress.
Research conducted in Highfields, Leicester showed that where traffic had been reduced, children were more likely to be allowed to play outside, or go to school and the local shop on their own. The number of children playing outside increased from 35 per cent to over 55 per cent and the number of children being allowed to walk to school increased from 21 per cent to 35 per cent.
Over half of the residents of Highfields, said that they felt a greater sense of community, 64 per cent said they felt safer crossing the road and the number of traffic accidents fell.
Research conducted in Leicester showed that where traffic had been reduced children were more likely to be allowed to play outside, or go to school and the local shop on their own.
"We would like to see the law changed so that speed limits of 10mph can be introduced and pedestrians and cyclist given priority over cars," said Lynn Sloman, assistant director of Transport 2000.
"The Dutch have put a lot of money into Home Zones and have a major programme in place. By the year 2001, 40 per cent of residential streets will be home zones, and by the year 2006 this will be 100 per cent," she said.
The Dutch spend about pounds 1.60 per person per year, calming down traffic on residential streets compared with less than 10p per person per year, in Britain.
The Real Dangers
Road accidents are the biggest single cause of accidental death for all children up to the age of 15.
In 1997, 40,000 children under 15 were injured on the roads. There were 17,000 child pedestrian casualties, 65 per cent were male.
220 children died on British roads, including 133 pedestrians, 30 cyclists and 57 car occupants.
More than 2.4 million children under 15 went to an Accident and Emergency Department as a result of an injury.
More than 1.3 million were injured outside the home. 200,000 were injured in parks or public gardens, and 150,000 in school or public playgrounds.
More than 230 children were taken to hospital because of near-drowning accidents and 48 children died from drowning.
More than 125,000 children are injured in the garden each year. Garden accidents involving children over eight rise dramatically during the school summer holidays, peaking to almost 16,000 during August.