Watch for Kids in School Zones, Even in Summer Months

My son was hit by a pickup truck a couple of weeks ago, crossing the street when coming home from a school ‘enrichment’ program. He is doing fine – thanks for asking – but it has raised many questions in our area, and it has prompted a look at how we deal with school zones year-round. More on his specifics later.

Right now we are at the start of August, which in the Northeast at least is the middle of summer school vacations (I know in some areas it is more like 75% done … sorry), with kids getting out near the end of June and starting up again right after Labor Day. So for most folks including parents, thoughts of school are far from their mind.

Yet many schools have been active since the end of the spring semester, and they will remain active until school is back in session. School is still open for those kids who need to retake classes in summer school (assuming that is still what it is called), participate in sports camps housed at various schools, or attend enrichment programs offering education mixed with fun; as August starts, official school training for bands and sports and other activities will also begin.

As a result, at many schools there are cars in the parking lot most of the day; kids coming and going in the morning, midday and afternoon. Sure, not as many as during the school year – but enough that drivers should be aware.

Yet there is little done to reinforce these facts: flashing school zone lights are typically off during the summer; there are no crossing guards and crosswalk yield signs are never put out. And for drivers, the reduced speeds of the school zone are seldom observed — because school is out, after all.

The image above was taken looking at the local Intermediate & Middle School (grades 5 – 8, separated into two distinct schools) from the end of our street. The dark brown brick structure is mostly obscured by trees, but perhaps you can see a bit under and to the left of the willow trees in the center of the image. Our house is the fifth on the street, meaning that the total distance from our house to the school is about a quarter of a mile. Certainly a reasonable distance, and our younger son (who is 14) has walked to school by choice most days for the last couple of years, despite bus service running right by our house.

When we moved into our house just over four years ago, we noted and were concerned by the speed of drivers through the school zone; we were told that a cross-walk or reduced speed had been brought up before, but it had been blocked by politics. I mean, it seemed silly that a school with nearly 1300 students, with 4 development roads within the school zone (3 across the street, 1 on the same side as the school) encompassing more than a couple of hundred houses would not have a crosswalk to the school. I mean, we moved from Massachusetts where every school zone since I was a kid had cross-walks, guards, flashing lights and a 20MPH limit. We had always thought about trying to pursue it … but you know how these things go.

As for what happened, our son was taking a month-long enrichment program called ‘Sci-Fair’. The program brings in students from Cornell University as well as teachers to work with kids to create 3D virtual worlds filled with realistic objects, and they simultaneously do research on the topic provided that they build their world around. It might be pollution, water conservation, technology evolution, or whatever. It is pretty cool.

Anyway, it was the first day of the program; he had walked over in the morning and was now walking home, noting that unlike the normal busy street he would encounter there were few drivers on the road. But when he went to start crossing, out of nowhere a truck was there. The truck side-swiped him, knocking him into a tail-spin onto the road. He received plenty of bumps and bruises (and a concussion) but nothing more.

By the time my wife got there the police were on the way, other drivers had stopped, and seeing that my son was OK the driver starting talking about ‘getting our stories straight’ and other stuff that made him seem ‘questionable’. A police report was filed, and my wife and son headed off in the ambulance; I met them at the hospital. He was released a few hours later and aside from a couple of days of being achy he was none the worse for the accident.

The other action we took was to immediately draft a letter to the school system, including the superintendent and principals of both schools. The very next morning we heard back from the superintendent with his own thoughts and a course of action. We then proceeded up the food chain – because we quickly discovered that the school has little power in these things.

As it turns out, the road passing in front of the school is a county road, so the town cannot set or maintain anything with the road. But the county cannot change things like the speed limit without state approval, and the state guidelines on school zone speeds are much softer in New York than in Massachusetts, so it isn’t clear what they will approve. Regarding the crosswalk, there were several ideas including some needs to comply with ADA standards. Also, while the county can provide the crosswalk, a ‘yield to pedestrians’ sign would have to be placed and maintained by the school.

But while that is a beaurocratic mess, it was not what we expected – everyone was quick to return calls, engaged and eager to help however they could. We have heard back from a couple of people, but will have to wait a bit for everything to get in motion. Part of the reason why things are going as smoothly as they are seems to be that we never yelled or sought to place blame; and our son is entering high school in a month so our concern is less about him than it is about the NEXT kid in that situation. That genuine concern and willingness to help seemed to motivate people more than shouting at a town meeting.

If you do a quick search on ‘student hit by car in front of school’ … you will probably be as surprised as I was. I came up with two pages of results FROM 2012! They are from all over the country — in all sorts of circumstances and with a wide variety of outcomes — including a couple from July!

My bottom line is this: pay attention when you are driving, and set yourself up to be as safe as possible. If you are near a school or playground or ice cream stand … put down the phone and SLOW DOWN. The guy who hit my kid was trying to talk my son into taking the blame so it wouldn’t impact his license … the next kid might not be able to speak.

It is not acceptable to ASSUME that schools are empty in the summer or that playgrounds are abandoned in the fall and winter, we need to LOOK. We all have to ask ourselves what matters more – that text, changing the radio station, going 50 in a 30MPH zone to get to wherever a few seconds earlier … or the little kid chasing the ball out of the playground.

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3 replies

  1. Wow, that’s terrible, Mike! Hopefully something can be done to resolve the issue. But I’m confused: why would a school have to jump through so many hoops to have various features in place to satisfy local, state and federal requirements (e.g., accessibility requirements, structural, electrical code and such) but not have something as obvious as the road(s) adjacent to the school automatically be speed-restricted. I’m pretty sure most schools aren’t built out in the boonies with no vehicular access…so why wouldn’t something so obvious be automatically part of a school building code? Building code safety compliance is kind of moot if kids are at a real risk of injury just trying to cross a road to get to the school in the first place!

    • Well, it is like anything in politics, right? When I checked the regulations, there were MUSTS in terms of signs, so there is a little ‘School Zone’ on either side as required. But for speed control it is a ‘may’ or ‘should’ situation where it is supposed to be at least 10MPH below speeds outside of the zone … but that isn’t the case here. And one argument is that since there are no sidewalks the kids should be taking the bus anyway …

  2. I moved from Indiana to Massachusetts, and the average pedestrian from Boston would not survive a minute in Indiana traffic, where jaywalking laws are enforced by speeding cars.

    That said, the problem with laws governing this is that the laws will go overboard, very quickly. Several school districts near me have a no-walking-to-school policy. Even if you live a block away. Because a walker got hit by a car, no kid can walk to school, no matter how close they live to the school.