Unsafe Routes to School

There is a strange sort of consensus in this tragic tale from Atlanta of a child killed as he was crossing in front of his school that somehow, lack of traffic signals is the underlying problem.

Traffic signals, however, despite our fetishistic belief in them, are not a safety device per se: They are a means for directing traffic flow. To the extent they actually get drivers to stop (for fear of being struck by another car), they have an ancillary benefit for pedestrians. But they also encourage drivers to look up away from the street, and to accelerate towards an intersection (potentially crowded with pedestrians) so as to not miss a light. They may also raise a false sense of security amongst pedestrians.

But as the story notes, there was no shortage of warning here:

A crossing guard was on duty and had carried a stop sign into the street, and other vehicles had stopped, police spokeswoman Mekka Parish said.

What’s more,

Road signs warn drivers they are approaching the school crosswalk. Ogilvie’s car was southbound. Drivers coming from the north pass a flashing school zone sign on a roadside post and a sign warning, “Stop for pedestrians in crosswalk” before traveling over a small hill just north of the school.

Exactly how many more warnings this driver needed (no word if they were on a phone or similarly distracted) before realizing they were in an area with crossing schoolchildren is unknown — and why, having missed all these other signs, this driver would magically stop for a traffic light (more than 3000 people a year are killed by people who don’t), is beyond me. At what point do we treat the issue of driver responsibility, instead of cursing the absence of a set of colored lights in the sky or some bit of road engineering?

The piece skirts around the real issue: Driver speeds (from experience people in the Atlanta region treat small neighborhood streets as high-speed shortcuts). It could have also noted the much greater likelihood of a pedestrian dying when struck by an SUV, rather than a car.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 4th, 2009 at 5:27 pm and is filed under Pedestrians, Risk, Roads, Traffic Engineering. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

8 Responses to “Unsafe Routes to School”

  1. chrismealy Says:

    Shirley Jackson should have had the villagers run people over instead of stoning them to death.

  2. Rich Wilson Says:

    My experience in Atlanta was that it was extremely hostile to pedestrians. Traffic would normally stop well past the wide white ‘stop’ line, blocking the pedestrian crossing at lights. Many sidewalks end leaving pedestrians stranded. A crosswalk to carry pedestrians from a bus stop to a mall landed them in the bushes on the mall side. Pedestrians are truly second class citizens.

  3. Shane Says:

    Though it’s obviously the drivers fault and inattention is probably the issue I have to disagree about the certainty that a light wouldn’t have helped. For good or bad we’ve trained drivers to pay attention to traffic lights and it’s a recognized symbol of an “important” intersection or crossing. This driver might not have paid attention even to the traffic light but it is clear there is an issue here since the parents and neighbors lobbied to get a traffic light in this spot.

    Yes, ideally we wouldn’t need the traffic light and we would create an environment where we ‘calm’ the traffic so it is clear that people can’t speed through this area but traffic engineers are even less likely to take these steps than they are to put in a traffic light.

    I have an issue in my town where the traffic engineer wont put in a crosswalk because 1) it will get people crossing the spot in too many places (heaven forbid) and 2) it will give people a ‘false’ sense of security. The problem is they already are crossing in that spot AND cars are less likely to stop for them because it is not marked. We’ve watched that spot many times as parents try and cross and they wait longer and have to be more aggressive than at the marked crosswalk one block down.

    The concern with our traffic department is moving cars. Until that dynamic changes people in our community will continue to fight for the crumbs of trying to get some sort safe and comfortable feeling when crossing a street- be it a traffic signal, sign, or crosswalk.

    PS- I’m a Safe Routes to School coordinator so I’m interested to hear your thought on this topic.

  4. Tom Vanderbilt Says:

    Shane raises a very good point in that drivers have acquired a certain expectancy towards looking for traffic signals, above all else. And, on a two-lane road at least, one can tell quite clearly that both lanes have stopped (and the first vehicle thus becomes a ‘crash barrier’ of sorts for pedestrians). Though I wonder where that leaves us in cases where the budget simply isn’t there for signalization. Which also raises the “black spot” problem — there may be a crash or incident at a site, and then a treatment, and then no further problems, but we often can’t say for sure whether the treatment worked or it’s simple ‘regression to the mean.’ (that DeKalb crosswalk hadn’t previous had a serious incident). Though based on the kind of news reports that I get about incidents near schools (and often the driver is someone taking a kid to the school), I sometimes wonder if we simply need to put out the entire arsenal of calming. People just don’t seem to equate the presence of a school with the presence of child pedestrians.

  5. Carice Says:

    I’m just pleasantly surprised that the driver was charged. So many times the sad coda of these sad stories is that “the driver wasn’t drunk and stayed at the scene, so it was _just_ an accident” and there are no repercussions.
    Yes, it was a mistake, not premeditated murder, but mistakes have consequences, and the person who commits such a grave mistake should have to suffer some of the consequences.

  6. Shane Says:

    “I sometimes wonder if we simply need to put out the entire arsenal of calming. People just don’t seem to equate the presence of a school with the presence of child pedestrians.”

    Amen to that!

    And yes…
    “often the driver is someone taking a kid to the school..”

    Some of the most important work of SRTS is to get the parents who are driving to stop since they are sometimes the source of the very issues they are worried about!

  7. MarkB Says:

    Harsher penalties and stricter enforcement on traffic offenses that endanger people — start with license revocation AND vehicle confiscation — the “higher standards for emissions” could be more easily met without the demand for acceleration in modern cars! Sorry, people, but rights carry responsibilities with them, and if you don’t live up to the responsibilities, you can’ enjoy the rights! Endangering people with your car is AT THE VERY LEAST irresponsible, and should cost you your car. And the idea that cars have to be fast off the line, tire-screeching fast anywhere, is just overblown. Go find a racetrack if you want to drive like that. I’ll comfort your widow.

    (In case anyone didn’t catch, the ‘right’ I’m talking about is the right to choose to own and operate and dangerously fast vehicle.)

  8. Bossi Says:

    I am somewhat bothered in that many schools seem to be located along arterial roadways, subsequently necessitating reduced speed zones — which often come without any geometric design to back them up. New schools should be placed along collector roads, which are more conducive to lower-speeds and multimodal (car, bicycle, pedestrian) transportation. On the other hand, arterials are inherently supposed to be geared toward automotive transportation; and yet we attempt to treat them as a shared environment.

    Perhaps I sound like a car-centric advocate here, but the fact of it is that our mentality for the past several decades has been to move cars and only cars. Now we’re attempting to shift away from that, but our arterials are quite simply designed for cars and are not conducive toward pedestrians – especially schoolchildren. We must decide whether we should build arterials to move traffic from one distant place to another; or if any can be converted into collector-class streets more conducive to neighborhood and multimodal traffic – requiring that people live near their work. It is worth asking yourself whether or not the latter is even feasible in today’s society.

    I’m not car-centric, but I’m certainly not anti-car. All modes have their place, and I fully support the works of the late Hans Monderman and his concepts of shared space. However, we need to provide shared space and traffic calming where they are applicable: in environments where we *want* more equality among modes. If we want to install devices in the name of safety while all-the-while thinking “mobility first”, things will only get worse.

    We need our respective planning and transportation agencies to (re)consider roadway hierarchies, uses, functions, and desired mode splits; and where schools fit into this infrastructure. Greater cooperation should be encouraged between planning and transportation agencies to ensure that important facilities such as schools can be located in a safe area whereby the roads are designed to reflect safety moreso than mobility.

    With regards to crosswalks: I outright refuse to place *any* marked crosswalk at an uncontrolled location that crosses a roadway with more than one lane in a direction. The rationale is that while one motorist may properly yield, another motorist may either rear-end that vehicle; or could swerve to avoid and then strike the pedestrian that thinks it’s clear. I’ve seen this occur countless times, both as the driver, as the pedestrian, and with the latter: as the person getting hit. The real task has been trying to sway my coworkers, supervisors, & citizenry to my own opinions.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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