It’s hard to think of anything more important than protecting children, and more and more of the public’s focus is directed toward school safety. Much of the attention has been focused on safety inside the school building, and rightly so. But what about protecting youngsters as they travel to and from school?
While effective solutions exist, many of them are costly and obstructive. Curb extensions, crossing islands and pedestrian bridges, for example, all require major construction projects — and major funds. The traffic safety industry also offers plenty of options for combating the problem of accidents and fatalities in school zones: circular and rectangular flashing beacons, LED-enhanced flashing signs, and illuminated crosswalks. All these solutions have been proven effective, but costs can prevent them from being implemented at every dangerous crosswalk.
So, with many municipal budgets shrinking these days, how can communities make school zones safer? Fortunately, there are several low-cost alternatives to major road changes.
Some basic items to consider are signage and crosswalk markings. Are there adequate advance warning, school zone and speed limit signs in place around the school? Are they clear, visible and up to MUTCD standards of reflectivity? Is the crosswalk paint bright enough? Are crossing guards in the best spots, well-trained and equipped with reflective safety vests and STOP paddles?
Distracted driving…and walking
The benefits of signage, pavement markings and crossing guards disappear, however, when people don’t see them. We’ve all heard about the hazards of distracted driving due to earbuds and mobile phone usage behind the wheel, but drivers are not the only ones whose attention can easily stray from the road. With the ubiquity of mobile devices in the hands of younger and younger kids, students are also at risk of staring at their screens while crossing the street rather than looking around for motorists.
A 2016 study found that one in six middle schoolers and a quarter of high schoolers displayed distracted behavior in school zones due to mobile device usage. Signs, flyers and letters to parents can be used to promote a “Head Up, Phone Down” campaign, and crossing guards and school officials can be recruited to enforce the policy—all at little cost.
Field trips with a purpose
While all of the above is vital to school zone safety, another way to make children safer as they travel to and from school is to reduce the number of cars on surrounding roads. One way to do that is to encourage students within a reasonable distance to walk or bike to school, while discouraging parents from driving. The federal Safe Routes to School program (SRTS) exists for just that purpose, and funding is available through the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.
But before parents stop driving their kids to school, they need to be convinced their kids are safe walking or biking. One low-cost recommendation from SRTS is conducting neighborhood “walk-abouts” and “bike-abouts.” Volunteers survey neighborhood streets and sidewalks, identifying the safest routes for children and noting problem areas that need to be addressed. And this doesn’t need to be an overly complicated or expensive project. Small groups can spread out and walk or bike the neighborhood streets. The pool of candidates for such groups is large: parents, students, teachers, school administration, traffic engineers and public officials can all be invited to join the endeavor.
Some things to watch for are foliage crowding sidewalks, blind corners, uncontrolled intersections, cracked or uneven pavement and lack of signage and marked crosswalks. Sidewalk buffers (the area between sidewalks and curves) should also be carefully observed. While beautification features like planters are pleasing to the eye, they should be limited in height lest they block drivers’ view of smaller children.
It’s not hard to imagine “walk-abouts” and “bike-abouts” becoming fun community events, capped off with a celebration featuring food and prizes donated by local businesses. Local media can promote the event, spreading awareness of the important issue of school safety to the wider community. The project could even be included in school curriculum as a great way to for students to learn safety practices, community building and problem solving.
Once data is collected and compiled, volunteers drawn from the above pools can review the information and devise the safest pedestrian route to school for children in each section of the neighborhood, then distribute maps with the optimal routes marked for children to follow. Local government can supply standard maps and aerial photos to help in the design of the safe route maps. Also, findings regarding hazards along the less-safe streets and sidewalks can be communicated to local officials so they can be remedied.
The human cost of the loss of a young life is inestimable, but the cost of preventing such a tragedy doesn’t have to be. Act now to make your school zones safer for all.