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Driving Safely in School Zones

School zones are supposed to keep kids safe as they arrive at and leave school, but the zones sometimes pose a risk for pedestrians and motorists alike. Each school year, nearly 54 million school-age children walk or bike to school or otherwise pass through the school zone after exiting a caregiver's car or the school bus. In those busy zones, they can be at risk of injury or death. Meanwhile, motorists (even those who are parents or caregivers hauling their precious cargo) may need a refresher class on the rules of the road in school zones, experts say.

"There's a lot of activity that happens between arrival time and dismissal time that can be distracting, and that's the piece that can make it risky for young pedestrians," says Nancy Pullen-Seufert, associate director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School.

Just How Dangerous Are School Zones?
Take Chicago as an example: From 2007 to 2011 nearly 1,700 children and youths ages 5-18 were struck by vehicles within about a block of a school, according to a recent analysis by the Chicago Tribune of school zone safety in the city. That's an average of about 10 percent of all pedestrians hit by vehicles in Chicago over that time period. Many drivers didn't stop or slow down in or near these school zones, even when a crossing guard was present.

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Big cities like Chicago aren't the only places where school zones are unsafe for pedestrians. A national survey found that two-thirds of drivers exceed the posted speed limit during the 30-minute period before and after school. And automated photo enforcement measures found that 78 percent of drivers sped in school zones, and 82 percent of drivers passed a school bus illegally.

Motorists often violate stop sign rules at intersections in school zones and residential neighborhoods, according to a report by Safe Kids Worldwide, "Facts About Injuries to Child Pedestrians." Forty-five percent don't come to a complete stop, 37 percent roll through the stop sign and 7 percent don't slow down.

The most dangerous time for the school zone and beyond is the after-school period from 3-4 p.m. That's when more school-age pedestrians are killed by motorists than at any other time of day, according to AAA.

The problem of speeding in school zones has forced some municipalities, including Chicago, to install speed cameras to catch and ticket those violating the school zone speed limit.

"In places where that's happened, there's been a decrease in injuries and fatalities associated with kids who are walking in school zones," says Kate Carr, CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide.

Good News, Bad News and Why Teens Are at Increased Risk
Fortunately, the number of traffic fatalities among pedestrians age 14 and younger went down from 391 fatalities in 2002 to 230 in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The bad news is that nationwide in 2011, an estimated 11,000 pedestrians age 14 and younger were injured in traffic accidents overall.

For young children, learning to cross the street safely takes awhile. Children don't always cross when or where they should. In 2011, 79 percent of pedestrian fatalities among those ages 14 and younger occurred at non-intersection locations, such as between parked cars or crossing the road in the middle.

When drivers approach a school zone, the odds are that most of the people walking there "do not know the laws and do not know anything about an automobile," says James Solomon, program development and training director of defensive driving courses for the National Safety Council.

"Kids don't know how long it takes to stop a car," he says. "None of that is in their thinking."

It's not just unpredictable elementary kids who walk into harm's way: Teens between the ages of 15 and 19 account for half of all pedestrian deaths among children.

Drivers should increasingly keep an eye out for tweens and teens, who are often plugged into their mp3 players or smartphones and tuned out of the real world and its hazards. Over the last five years, there's been a 25 percent increase in pedestrian injuries for teens between the ages of 16 and 19, found a 2012 report by Safe Kids Worldwide.

Because of this alarming trend, Safe Kids recently conducted an observational study of 34,000 middle school and high school students walking in school zones. It found that one in five high school students and one in eight middle school kids were distracted by a mobile device.

"We know that distraction is a big issue for drivers, but there's been less focus on the issue of distraction for pedestrians," says Carr of Safe Kids Worldwide. "We need to teach our kids that a mobile device shouldn't be used when crossing the street." Safe Kids Worldwide recently launched a Web video campaign to get kids to turn off their mobile devices before crossing the street. They're asked to switch off in memory of Christina Morris-Ward, a 15-year-old who was distracted by a mobile device and killed while crossing the street.

Follow the Rules To Save a Life
Crosswalks, flashing lights, stop signs and crossing guards can only do so much when it comes to protecting school children. When it comes to school zone safety, motorists need to study up on these safe-driving tips from experts in school zone safety:

  • Expect the unexpected: "Children run and play. They can come from anywhere," says James Solomon of the National Safety Council.
  • Stop properly at stop signs and crosswalks: It's illegal to pass through either a stationary stop sign or one held by a crossing guard or other safety representative.

    In all 50 states, when a stop sign is displayed, motorists must stop for it, Solomon says. Drivers should stop completely at the stop sign, before the crosswalk area. Blocking a crosswalk could force kids to go around your vehicle, putting them in danger. And wait a bit before driving through after the crossing guard clears the intersection, warns Solomon. "There are always one or two children lagging behind that are now going to run through the crosswalk to catch up with the rest of the group."
  • Obey the speed limit: "The faster you are going, the more likely you are to injure a pedestrian and to injure them more seriously," says Nancy Pullen-Seufert of the National Center for Safe Routes to School.

    Most school zones have speed limits of 20 mph or less. Studies have found that 5 percent of pedestrians hit by a vehicle at 20 mph suffer a fatality. The fatality number increases to 45 percent when hit by a vehicle going 30 mph, and to 80 percent for a pedestrian hit by a vehicle traveling at 40 mph. And because of their smaller size, children fare even worse. Faster driving means longer stopping distances. At 20 mph, it takes an average vehicle 69 feet to come to a total stop, and nearly double that distance, to 123 feet, at just 30 mph, according to NHTSA.
  • Put away electronic devices: A few states, including Illinois, have made it illegal to use a cell phone while driving in a school zone, and for good reason.

    Talking on your cell phone has been shown to reduce reaction time. Looking away for just 2 seconds doubles your chance of crashing. Texting while driving has been shown to be as dangerous as driving drunk.

    "The ability to multitask is a myth. If you are going to drive your child to school, drive your child to school. Leave the cell phone in a place where you aren't going to be distracted," says Kate Carr of Safe Kids Worldwide.

    Solomon agrees. "You want to navigate the school zone 100 percent prepared to handle a situation," he says.
  • Make eye contact with pedestrians: "If you haven't made eye contact with them, assume that they haven't seen you and that they are just going to keep on going," says Carr.
  • Wait your turn near school buses: It's illegal in all 50 states to pass a bus on undivided roadways if the vehicle is stopped to load and unload children. State laws vary regarding passing a school bus on a divided roadway when the bus is traveling in the opposite direction, but all vehicles behind a bus must stop. Make sure you know the rules in your state, and regardless of whatever they are, never pass a school bus on the right. It's a sure recipe for disaster.

    According to the National Safety Council, most children who die in bus-related crashes are pedestrians ages 4-7 who are hit by the bus or by motorists illegally passing the school bus.
  • Pay attention to bus warning lights: A yellow flashing light means the bus is preparing to stop to let kids on or off. A red light means kids are getting on or off the bus.
  • Give buses ample space to load and unload: Children are in the most danger of being hit by a vehicle within the 10 feet around a school bus. And just in case you're tempted to violate any of the bus-related rules, many school buses are now equipped with rear cameras to catch motorists who illegally pass them.
  • Follow the school's drop-off rules: "Oftentimes parents get very tempted to drop their child off across the street from the school and tell their child to just run across the street. And we really, really don't want drivers to do that," says Pullen-Seufert. "Any time any pedestrian of any age is crossing the road, they are at a greater risk."
  • Choose a different route: If you are a daily commuter and not a parent picking up or dropping off their child, avoid a school zone if you can.
  • Be more careful in the fall: More children are injured by cars in September than any other month. "Kids are going back to school and drivers have to adjust again after a summer season," says Carr.
  • What to do if there's a near miss: Never reprimand or approach the child directly. The child is likely to be nervous or frightened when confronted by a stranger, Solomon says. Do let an adult know what happened, though. You might be alerting authorities to a potentially dangerous area within the school zone.

    You need to find whoever is in charge, if it's a crossing guard, a law enforcement agent or school staff," Solomon says. "You need to safely park the vehicle and explain what happened. Sooner or later, enough near-misses mean someone gets hit."
  • Treat every kid as your own: It's not always some unwary motorist who is responsible for school zone traffic accidents. Whether they're dropping off or picking up their children, parents also often break school zone road rules, say safety experts.

If you're a parent, keep in mind that even if your children are safely in school or in your vehicle, you still have to watch out for their classmates. You'd want other parents to do the same for your kids.

For more on what you can do to keep school children safe, including child pedestrians and bicyclists, check out the National Safety Council's "Back to School Safety Tips for Motorists."