By Aaron Crowe
Oct. 3 is Walk to School Day, when children who are walking or biking to school are supposed to be safe.
Unfortunately, that’s unlikely as drivers sometimes don’t see school-bound children in time. While it’s difficult to determine how many kids are hit in crosswalks while walking to or from school, statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that about a quarter of pedestrians injured by cars are children.
The NHTSA reports that in 2009 of the estimted 59,000 pedestrians who were injured, 13,000 were age 14 and younger. Of those children, boys accounted for 55%, or 7,000 injured boys.
There are several precautions that children, parents, drivers and even city traffic engineers can take to prevent children from being hit on the way to school.
Here are some of the problems kids face when walking to school, and what to do about them, according to Robert Ping, technical assistance director at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership:
- Speed kills. A pedestrian hit by a car traveling 20 mph has an 80% chance of survival, but at 40 mph their chance of survival drops to 20%. Drivers need to slow down, especially in high foot traffic areas near schools, crosswalks, parks, shopping centers and similar areas. Pedestrians should watch carefully before stepping into the street or across driveways.
- Size matters. Larger vehicles such as trucks and SUVs have reduced visibility when compared to medium and small cars, especially since the drivers eyes are 5-10 feet off the ground, and a small child is only 2-5 feet tall, making children nearly invisible above the hood at close range. In addition, larger vehicles take longer to stop when reacting to a pedestrian crossing the street. Drivers should slow down, and pedestrians should take vehicle size and speed into account when crossing streets and driveways.
In Modesto, Calif., a child was struck by a car in a crosswalk in an accident where the driver might not have seen the child because a pickup truck was legally parked in front of the crosswalk. Driving into the early morning sun might also have been a factor.
- Kids are learning. Young children are developing their sense of distance, speed and sound until around 10 years old. They may not be able to accurately judge when it is safe to cross a street or driveway. Drivers should be cautious, and adults or older children should accompany children when walking or bicycling until around 10 years of age.
- Knowledge is power. Drivers and pedestrians need to know the Rules of the Road. Children should receive traffic safety education from their parents, and in school if possible. Drivers (and all adults) should understand pedestrian and bicycle laws. Kids should be taught to wait until drivers have slowed to a stop before crossing in front of the vehicle – Right of Way doesn’t matter if the driver doesn’t see you or isn’t planning to stop for you. A 14-year-old boy in Iowa was recently hit by a driver who didn’t stop behind a car that was stopped in front of a crosswalk, and instead passed the car on the right and hit the boy.
- Streets should be walkable. Local transportation authorities need to implement pedestrian and bicycle safety infrastructure and education campaigns, in order to increase safety for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers. From installing sidewalks, to painting bike lanes and highly visible crosswalks, to building pedestrian “refuge islands” in the middle of multi-lane roads, to “Share the Road” campaigns, there are engineering treatments and safety messaging in communities around the country that are reducing collisions and saving lives.
- Be predictable. Drivers and pedestrians need to follow the rules. Jaywalking, texting while driving and running red lights are all dangerous and unpredictable. Pedestrians, cyclists and drivers should all be predictable. The vast majority of collisions are not accidents, but are due to someone not paying attention or respecting other travelers, and not acting predictably. Kids are especially vulnerable.
- Simple fixes. Clearing shrubs near street corners and painting crosswalk stripes make it easier for kids and drivers to see each other.
As anyone who has driven near a school during drop off or pickup times — but especially in the morning — can see, people drive too fast around kids walking to school. The easiest solution may be one that people rushing to work don’t want to hear: Slow down.