Children who live in Utah will soon be able to legally roam their neighborhoods without adult supervision.
The state is believed to be the first in the US to pass a "free-range parenting" bill, which allows kids who display maturity to play outside and walk to school alone without it being considered neglect. The legislation will take effect May 8.
Most US states have neglect laws, which make it illegal to leave kids unsupervised "to the degree that the child's health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm." Nineteen states specify when leaving a child unattended in a car is legal, and five states have laws that mandate the age at which a child can stay home alone.
Considered the opposite of helicopter parenting, free-range parenting refers to the belief that children should learn to function independently. Proponents of Utah's bill say the parenting style encourages self-sufficiency in kids, while critics worry about safety.
"I feel strongly about the issue, because we have become so over-the-top when 'protecting' children that we are refusing to let them learn the lessons of self-reliance and problem-solving that they will need to be successful as adults," Republican State Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, the bill's chief sponsor, told Yahoo Lifestyle.
In the past decade, free-range parenting has picked up some steam. Lenore Skenazy, a parent who lives in New York City, is one of the movement's most outspoken supporters.
"For us in the city, Free-Range means teaching our kids how to take public transportation," Skenazy writes on her site. "But in the 'burbs it involves teaching them how to ride their bikes. And in either place, we also teach kids how to be safe in the very unlikely event they encounter someone creepy."
Utah's new legislation opens up the debate about how children can and should interact with their cities and communities. Arkansas tried to pass a similar bill last year but failed after receiving pushback from critics who argued it was too dangerous to leave children unsupervised.
The idea may work better in Utah, a state that experiences relatively low per capita rates of violent crimes (i.e., homicide, sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated assault). About 243 violent crimes per 100,000 residents occurred statewide in 2016, according to the FBI's most recent stats. For comparison, Alaska — the state with the most reported violent crimes per capita — had more than three times that rate.
At the same time, Utah's streets are designed to prioritize cars rather than pedestrians, which opens up the risk of vehicles injuring kids. In the past five years, the state has seen a 25% increase in fatal pedestrian crashes, with most of those deaths happening because of speeding drivers.
More than one-third of the pedestrians involved in the crashes were ages 10 to 24. Some city planners say Utah's sprawl could be partly to blame, since high-density areas tend to see fewer fatal crashes.
Urban environments with higher densities do tend to have more crime. But within a city, high-density areas are generally safer than low-traffic areas.
On the national level, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah doesn't appear worried about kids exploring on their own. According to the Associated Press, he added an amendment to a 2015 federal education bill supporting "free-range parenting." The amendment says parents shouldn't face charges for allowing their kids to bike or walk to school alone.