August 31, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald
As our kids head back to school this week, let’s think again about the safety implications of mixing cars with kids walking to school.
Some lessons you just never forget. I’ve been taught since I was a young driver to “beware the bouncing ball.” I will always carry the memories of those afternoons practicing driving around our neighborhood, gripping the wheel of our family car, my instructor at my side. My mother would lecture (sometimes, perhaps, in louder tones than others), “bouncing balls, and the children who chase them, are the bane of the driver. Watch for them. Notice them.”
The numbers today tell us about a different type of “bouncing ball.” These numbers warn that it is perhaps the teenager that is most at risk as a pedestrian. According to one report, “Teens on the Move,” every hour of every day a teenage pedestrian in the United States is killed or injured. According to this study, “while teens account for one-third of children in the United States, they make up two-thirds of the pedestrian fatalities.”
Safe Kids, an organization dedicated to improving pedestrian safety, agrees. Safe Kids attributes the problem to “distracted walking.” Safe Kids reports that by the end of 2015, 88% of high school students owned cell phones, up from 45% just ten years earlier. This trend has safety implications for students walking to and from school. Safe Kids collected more than 34,000 observations of students crossing streets in school zones. It found that “one-in-five high school students, and one-in-eight middle school students, were observed crossing the street while distracted by phones, headphones and other mobile devices.” Indeed, according to Safe Kids, from 2013 to 2016, distracted walking increased from one-in-five to more than one-in-four among high school students, and increased from one-in-eight to one-in-six middle school students. In today’s world, in other words, cell phones are the new “bouncing ball.” As my mother would have said “watch for them; notice them.”
It is not just street crossings, however, that merit increased attention as our kids go back to school. Driveways can be deadly as well. In the United States, 50 children are backed over every week because a driver could not see them. Every vehicle, I am told, has what is called its “blind zone,” that area behind the vehicle where the driver cannot see even when looking back and properly using his or her rear and side view mirrors. The larger the vehicle, the larger the blind zone.
Driveways are often made even more dangerous to kids walking to school by bushes and other shrubberies that line the driveway or sit close to the sidewalk and impede sight lines. In addition, cars like our Prius hybrid are so quiet, they can “sneak up” on pedestrians, both young and old, without being heard. Situations where the driver cannot see the pedestrian, and the pedestrian can neither see nor hear a car backing out of the driveway, will daily present the potential for tragedy without the exercise of utmost care.
Unlike the teenage dangers of distracted walking, backing out of driveways poses the most danger to younger children. According to KidsAndCars, a national safety organization, “children do not understand the danger of the slow moving vehicle; they believe if they see the vehicle, the driver can see them.” The need to protect our kids from our cars, in other words, arises before one’s car ever hits the streets.
Kids, welcome back to school. I hope you find the year both fun and interesting. Here’s hoping, also, that we all take seriously our responsibilities, as both drivers and pedestrians, to keep the school year safe as well.