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To improve road safety, all Dutch children between the age of 10 and 12 have to take a traffic exam. The exam consists of two parts: an obligatory theoretical part, to test the children's knowledge of road safety rules, and an optional practical part, to test if the children can apply what they've learnt when riding their bike in regular traffic.
Pupils taking their cycling exam. Screenshot © YouTubePupils taking their cycling exam. Screenshot © YouTube

Children are vulnerable in traffic. They are playful, impulsive and can behave in an unpredictable way - e.g. they may suddenly cross the road without looking. It takes many years for children to fully understand the dangers in traffic and gain experience. Still, Dutch children need to learn fast, as by the age of 12 they are expected to be able to cycle to school independently - whether it's a short ride through the busy traffic of Amsterdam, or a 15-km ride along rural roads.

Road safety education

Parents play an important role in teaching their child how to stay safe in traffic. From the moment their child starts to walk, they start telling it: "Don't cross the road without looking." "First look left, then look right and left again." "Wait for the light to turn green." Road safety education at schools also contributes to fewer accidents in which children are involved.

The traffic education and the traffic exam were introduced in 1932 by a national society for road safety (now VVN) whose aim was 'to achieve the greatest possible safety for all road users'. At the time there was a growing concern about the rising number of traffic accidents.

In the 1920s traffic had not only got busier, but also much faster. The horse and carriage had become obsolete and the number of bikes and motorised vehicles was growing rapidly. Nobody was used to cars whizzing by at an incredible speed of 40 km per hour! Inevitably, accidents were happening - many of them fatal. Since 1959, traffic education in primary schools is obligatory from the age of six.

Theory exam

The theory exam is a national exam that is much like the theory exam you have to pass to get your driving licence. Only, here the traffic situations are seen from the perspective of a child on a bike. The children are tested on their knowledge of traffic rules and regulations, insight in traffic situations and awareness of the importance of safe behaviour. All schools have to take part in the theory exam.

Practical exam

The practical exam - also known as 'cycling exam' - tests whether the children can apply their knowledge of the traffic rules and regulations and have enough road skills to cycle safely and independently in regular traffic. The children have to cycle a set route with traffic situations that are typical for the area, such as a crossing with traffic lights, bridge or railway crossing. The route has to include certain basic traffic situations, such as turning left and crossings with and without priority.

Parents and volunteers are posted along the route to score the children's traffic skills and behaviour. Everything is taken into account, from sticking out the correct hand to indicate a left or right turn, to giving priority when necessary and stopping at a red traffic light. Ignoring a red light, failing to apply the priority rules correctly and any other serious road safety offence will automatically mean you've failed the exam.

Less cycling experience

When children are in primary school (which is often within walking distance) they don't cycle to school - indeed, about a third is taken to school by car! But when they go to secondary school, the majority has to go by bike - whether they are experienced cyclists or not. That is why the practical traffic exam in the final years of primary school is so important. Unlike the theoretical exam, the practical exam is not compulsory. It is up to schools to decide whether they take part of not.

Back in the 1970s my school didn't take part, which I found quite disappointing. Riding my bike outside during school hours - what's not to like? Nowadays a worrying 20% of the schools decides not to take part. Their main reasons are: not enough time to organise the exam, the exam route is unsafe (in larger towns) and some pupils don't have sufficient cycling skills to take part

Indeed, there is a growing number of children with an immigrant background that doesn't learn to cycle from their parents and often doesn't own a bike. It is sad to see that too little cycling experience is one of the reasons schools give for not offering their pupils the opportunity to take part in the cycling exam. Surely, it is this group that would benefit most from compulsory cycling lessons and a cycling exam!

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