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.
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.
Stop properly at stop signs and crosswalks.
Obey the speed limit.
Put away electronic devices.
Make eye contact with pedestrians.
Wait your turn near school buses.
Pay attention to bus warning lights.
Give buses ample space to load and unload.
Follow the school's drop-off rules.
Choose a different route.
*Original article written by Rita Colorito, Contributor for edmunds.com 11/26/2013.