A generation of children are missing out on vital exercise because their parents are too scared to let them walk or cycle to school.

New research shows high numbers of parents are disregarding key health and environmental messages and opting to drive children to the school gates, amid fears that a more active route would put them in too much danger.

The findings come as many children head back to school after the festive break.

According to a survey carried out by Sustrans Scotland and the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC), parents in rural as well as urban areas point to unsafe walking and cycling routes, dangerous school entrances, inadequate pavements and ineffective school crossings as key reasons why they refuse to allow children to travel to school on foot, scooter or bike.

READ MORE: Mother says streets around primary are too dangerous

Perhaps ironically they also indicated concerns over motorists’ dangerous driving as a key factor for choosing to get behind the wheel for the daily school run. Other barriers include lack of time to walk with them, and ‘inconvenience’.

The School Travel Survey for Parents comes after NHS statistics revealed a record high number of children are at risk of being overweight or obese. The figures, released in December, showed that nearly a quarter of primary one pupils are in danger, and prompted cancer campaigners to call for legislation to tackle unhealthy food and drinks aimed at children.

Campaigners have also highlighted the pollution costs of the school run, with Professor Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, recently warning that parents who drive their children to school are exposing them to “dangerous” levels of pollution because fumes could get inside cars, even if all the windows were closed.

Sustrans Scotland’s acting head of Head of Behaviour Change Lynn Stocks, has now called for action to improve safety around schools to help allay parents’ fears.

She said: “More needs to be done to improve safety around schools if we are to encourage healthy travel habits in children which can last a lifetime.

“Increasing the number of pupils travelling actively to school is a simple way of providing children with the moderate intensity of exercise required every day.

“However it is clear that as long as parents feel that these journeys are not safe, they will be unwilling for their children to travel actively.”

READ MORE: Mother says streets around primary are too dangerous

Around a third of parents said a lack of cycle routes was a barrier for their child travelling actively to school each day.

Meanwhile 42.4 per cent pointed to a combination of risk factors with even the area around the school gates regarded as a potential safety hazard for anxious parents.

Last year it emerged that the squeeze on council budgets had led to most local authorities in Scotland slashing their road crossing patrol budget and cutting back on ‘lollipop’ men and women. Stirling Council was shown to have cut its expenditure on school crossing patrols by more than 50 per cent over a three year period.

The findings echo research last year from Living Streets, the charity behind national Walk to School Week, which found 82 per cent of parents want more to be done to make the journey to school safer.

The charity said there had been a generation-long decline in the number of children walking to primary school - from 69 per cent to 51 per cent.

To tackle the issue, a number of Edinburgh schools have introduced vehicle exclusion zones designed to improve road safety as part of an 18 month trial organised under the local authority’s School Streets Initiative.

Eileen Prior, Executive Director of SPTC, said families face competing pressure of trying to ensure their children are safe, while also getting enough exercise.

She added: “These pressures often lead to a vicious circle of competing imperatives. For instance, we know driving too close to schools to drop off children actually creates danger in many ways.”

A Scottish Government spokesman it recognised the importance of ‘active travel’ and had invested more than £210 million in the programme since 2011. She added: “We will double the active travel budget from £40m to £80m a year from 2018-2019.”

It’s less than a mile from home to school – in theory mum Karen Von Zon should be able to wave her children off without any concerns.
Instead the Fife mother of three makes the journey with them, worried that the streets surrounding their primary school are too dangerous for children to navigate alone.

“The last section before the school is really quite dangerous. There are a lot of junctions and crossings and is exceptionally busy at school drop off and pick up times with parents driving their children to and from school,” she says.

“We have had a couple of near misses from drivers not paying attention when parking and reversing around the school entrance.

“And whilst children can be taught to handle busy traffic that is obeying the highway code, they can’t anticipate reversing cars, cars blocking pavements or cars blocking visual splays and sight lines.”

READ MORE: Mother says streets around primary are too dangerous

Stay at home mother Mrs Von Zon, 42, from Glenrothes, says she would prefer to allow her older children to either walk or cycle to school unaccompanied, but instead she travels with them every day. Because of where the school is situated there isn’t the option of closing roads near the entrance and addressing the issues with the infrastructure will take a long time. It’s very frustrating and dangerous for parents and children who have to negotiate the route on foot or bike every day. The situation encourages people to drive as they feel it will be safer.”