There seems to be an epidemic of children running into the street. I'm not basing this off of any statistics, but judging from many "discipline" discussions around the Internet and in parenting books and magazines, young children, poorly disciplined, want nothing more than to run into the street.
Anytime a parent disagrees with another parent's discipline methods, or feels those methods are too "soft," the immediate question posed is almost always, "But, how will you teach your children not to run into the street???" Personally, I happen to agree with Sara over at Happiness is Here that children too young to understand that streets can be dangerous should not be playing near automobile-containing streets without supervision in the first place.
But as this seems to be such a pressing problem in America today, I thought I should throw my two cents in as well. So here goes... the number 1, almost-fail-proof method for preventing children from running into the street is...
Walk with your children. Walk with them a lot.
Walk with them when they're babies, in carriers or wraps and then strollers. Walk with them when they're starting to toddle by themselves. Walk with them when they're walking confidently, and then riding their bikes.
Walk to the park. Walk to the store. Walk to the library. Walk anywhere you possibly can do so safely, with your children. Make sure to include a variety of types of streets and intersections. Make it a part of your daily life, if possible.
If you walk with your children often, as a way of life, they will learn very early and very quickly what roads are about. They will see cars, driving fast (it is very difficult to gauge just how fast cars are going if you only ever see them from another car). They will see you, walking on the sidewalk, and looking both ways before crossing the street, and waiting at stop lights. They will begin to understand what you are doing, and why, and they will do so too with very little explanation on your part.
And you know what? Children who understand the street because they walk there, a lot, will understand why their grown-ups don't want them running into the street. They will understand on a visceral, intuitive level that they need to be careful.
By the time my son was a young toddler, maybe 15 months old, he seemed to understand about traffic lights and walk signals. He had almost never seen them from a car because we lived in an extremely walkable neighborhood, but he stopped with us at the corner and waited for the light, without being told. From the time he learned to walk, he had been walking with us, not just fake walks to the end of the block, but real walks to get somewhere. When he wasn't walking on his own down the sidewalk, he was in a stroller going somewhere, on a daily basis. It was never necessary to say to him, "Don't step onto the black," or other seemingly-arbitrary explanations I hear adults giving to toddlers to try to keep them out of the street.
My youngest is now 16 months old, and she occasionally slips out the door and down the driveway, with one of us trailing close behind to scoop her up. But I have noticed that she never aims straight for the street. She gets to the bottom of the driveway and then veers either left or right, onto the sidewalk, because she knows that we never walk right out into the street. Children who walk a lot (or are walked a lot) will imitate the behavior of the adults who walk with them.
I am of course not suggesting that you release your toddlers to play by the street unsupervised, but it is comforting to know that children value their own safety almost as much as we do. They will avoid danger once they truly understand that something is dangerous.
Should it be the case that streets in neighborhoods containing humans are dangerous to those humans? No, of course not, and there was a time when children played in the street without care or worry. It was once considered the business of the drivers, horseback riders, motorists, and bicyclists to avoid the children, not the other way around. But until that is the case again, let's stop worrying about how to teach our children to stay out of the street, and show them.