Street Safety in School Areas

A while back (in the sunny days in September), my friend Mike Folka wrote about his first impressions now that his oldest has started school. Mike pointed out the complete chaos that is dropping your kids off at school. “Why in god’s name do we not have car free zones around schools?” he asked. “*All* kids finish their journey to school as a pedestrian whether they walk, bike, or drive there, so why wouldn’t we want to make the place where we send them safe as possible to walk and exist?”

The madness that is Glenbrook dropoff. That is not how 4 way stops work.

Indeed. When my kid’s school was built in 1929, all the kids walked or perhaps bicycled to school. It was not feasible to drive them, for many reasons. Fuel was too expensive, kids lived nearby, moms generally all stayed home to raise their kids, and there were no Programs of Choice (at our school, there is a Montessori stream that takes kids from across the district). Now, drop off and pick up times are harried and crowded, with many adults making really, incredibly, poor choices about how to operate their cars.

Daily, I see: adults driving up the wrong side of the street, not yielding to pedestrians, stopping in the middle of the road, parking illegally and blocking crosswalks, not coming to a complete stop at stop signs, shouting expletives at one another, and opening the doors for kids to literally jump into traffic. It is an awful display of bad role modeling most days, and I don’t understand why people think it’s okay to behave this way. I am also at a loss to explain why no one has been hurt yet. Sidenote: Yesterday, I watched a daycare provider come out between two parked cars on a busy street, stroller-first, with a more visible crossing at the corner only a few metres away. Parents: please ask your daycare provider how they model good behaviour to your kids! Some are wonderful and do such a good job. Some might just not be thinking.

Relatively calm morning at drop off.
Relatively calm morning at drop off, waiting for the crowd to disperse.

I’m not alone, either. The Canadian Automobile Association says that in a poll they conducted, nearly two thirds of Canadians have witnessed a dangerous driving act near a school. Among other things, they suggest parents park a block away and walk in.

For the record, I drive too – we live just a bit too far away for us to walk comfortably with the time we have in the morning. I park a number of blocks away and walk in, or we arrive early and wait and then I usually wait till the rush passes before I leave. Soon, my son will be old enough to start riding a bicycle and we’re preparing for this.

I spoke with Constable Gerald Lau, the school liaison officer for the New Westminster Police Department and (in?)famous dance-party-bringer. He says that when he does traffic safety talks at schools, he tells students to “be in the moment when it comes to traffic safety, focus on what you are doing, and how to be safe.”

He teaches them to walk on sidewalks where available and to always cross at intersections, always wear a helmet when riding a bicycle, and always walk your bicycle across a roadway, and gives them different instructions depending upon the situation: whether they are crossing an intersection with the assistance of a crossing guard, crossing with signals, or crossing uncontrolled intersections.

“We encourage parents to review the rules of the road with their children and go over their daily route to and from school,” said Karon Trenaman, local ICBC road safety coordinator. “Drivers should allow extra travel time to avoid rushing and watch for children, especially in or around school zones.” ICBC provides free road safety educational materials to B.C. schools to help students learn about road safety using fun and interactive activities. The materials are unique to each grade level from kindergarten to grade 10.

Lisa Leblanc, the Manager of Transportation for the City of New Westminster, says the City is committed to improving safety as well. “Every school has a school travel plan in place, that were developed with HASTe, the Hub for Active School Travel.” The City of New Westminster has actively focused on active modes of transportation. So far, the work to date has identified preferred modes of travel, and the barriers people experience to travel in those modes. HASTe has also made recommendation to overcome them, such as speed humps, curb extensions, and improvements to crosswalks. Over the summer, the City implemented some of those recommendations, though the area around the high school is not completed yet. These adjustments don’t eliminate driving to school,  but it does promote other modes of transportation such as cycling.

The City is now undertaking a bit of a policy exercise: looking at school traffic control as a whole, and looking at school zones and asking questions such as: “Are they big enough?” The City does have control over how big the school zones are, though it is in the public interest to be as consistent within the guidelines as possible. “The Motor Vehicle Act does have some stipulations about how to extend a school zone, but provided there is adequate and correct signage, some engineering analysis, and a well articulated rationale, the City is empowered to make changes in the name of safety,” says Leblanc. “Consistency from one school zone to the next within the city is very important, as well.”

You know those huge yellow signs in school areas that remind drivers what the school speed limit is? Those are not mandated signs, they are awareness or “PR” signs. They are also approaching the end of their useful life and could use some modernizing. Wouldn’t it be fun to see those signs be a bit more eye catching and refreshed. Perhaps a contest that involves students?

How can you get involved in road safety in school areas? Well, get involved in your PAC. Your school’s PAC can make requests and send information to the District Parents Advisory Council, and road safety is on the minds of DPAC. “Please parents, be mindful of road safety rules during pick up and drop off of children, and respectful of the school administrators in their  efforts to make the environment around the schools as safe and healthy as possible”, says Karon Trenaman, New West DPAC Chairperson. “ Please park your vehicle a couple blocks away and walk your children onto school property.”

All that said, one of the most effective things in promoting road safety and teaching kids great, safe behaviour is modelling great behaviour ourselves. So, when you find yourself driving around our community, especially in areas when you are likely to encounter kids walking, riding their bikes, and generally being present, SLOW DOWN, think about and look for other road users, and know that kids are watching and learning.