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Protecting our kids on the trip to and from school

At this special time of the year, I can only imagine the feelings of the family of Ashley Paine. My heart goes out to them…

Ashley’s tragic death in early November focused attention on the safety of our children when they travel back and forth to school.

City Council cannot tell the school system how to operate its busing program, but all of us have a right to an opinion on the subject. Some people are saying that every child should be able to ride the bus, regardless of where they live. I don’t share that view. I think it’s healthy (both physically and economically) to encourage kids to walk, if (and only if) they have a safe walking route to school (something that not all of our kids have right now).

When the schools cut out busing for kids within a mile, I was disappointed that the schools did not tailor the bus zones so that kids would not need to cross dangerous streets and intersections. Further, it was clear to me from the walking-zone street lists that they had been developed without much ground-truthing (for example, Mona Lane — which was eliminated several years ago — was listed as a walking street for Linden School, and my house was apparently eligible for bus service to Linden because we are a mile from the school by street, although the walking distance is much less than that because there’s a sidewalk-only back entrance to Linden from Montclair Road). That indicated to me that the lists were made by an automated process, and no responsible adult had investigated the situation from a kid’s perspective to make sure the new plan was reasonable.

I’m relieved that elementary school kids now have (limited) bus access (although I’ve told Dr. Bailey that it was silly to place a bus stop on Montclair Road at the back entrance to Linden) and that kids in the “garden apartments” (Rolling Hills apartments) area can now ride the bus to Robertsville, so they won’t have to cross Oak Ridge Turnpike. These changes address the most hazardous situations in which children were being asked to walk. I’m also relieved that there is now a “school zone” speed limit on Illinois Avenue near Robertsville Road, but that intersection is still a treacherous one (as Trina has frequently pointed out). If there are particular issues in other areas, I hope that parents are telling school officials about them.

However, instead of protecting kids by putting them in buses, my personal long-term vision for the city includes making it walkable and bikeable — for our kids and for all of us.

By coincidence a few days before this accident I noticed announcements of other Tennessee communities’ receiving grants for “Safe Routes to School” measures, and I inquired if Oak Ridge had applied. (We had not done so. These grants are available to municipalities, schools, PTAs, etc. City and school system staff say there will be an application this year.)“Nightmare Intersection” from Safe Routes to School

In skimming online information about the “Safe Routes to School” initiative, I was chagrined to see that several of the “what’s wrong with this picture” situations could have been illustrated by photos in Oak Ridge (for example, photo on the right, which was captioned “Elementary school children should not have to walk across wide, complex intersections like these for their school commute” on the Tools to Reduce Crossing Distances for Pedestrians page.) See What’s Wrong With This Picture for more photos that could be from Oak Ridge, such as cars parked on the sidewalk and bushes overgrowing the sidewalk. The bottom line is that there are many opportunities for improvement here in Oak Ridge!

Regardless of physical infrastructure challenges, the Safe Routes to School folks recommend education as the primary ingredient of a Safe Routes to School program (see http://www.saferoutesinfo.org/guide/education/index.cfm). In the aftermath of Ashley’s accident, I think that our schools should be taking near-term measures to help our kids learn to be safer pedestrians, both to reduce the possibility of future tragedies and to help restore kids’ feelings of self-confidence and personal well-being that have doubtless been undermined by this incident. I know that the “safety city” activities have been successful here (however, I don’t know if they are still happening) in teaching kindergarteners the basics of pedestrian safety, but kids need to learn to deal with increasingly more complex situations as they get older and become more independent, and our schools no longer have programs like the safety patrol that instilled safe behavior in so many of us when we were kids. I am pleased to hear that the Police Dept. school resource officer is helping to conduct school assemblies and other programs to coach kids on safe pedestrian behavior (it seems to me this should include what might be called “defensive walking” and “defensive biking”).

Another Safe Routes to School recommendation is to map “safe routes” for kids. A “good example” on the Safe Routes to School websites tells that “The city of Phoenix, Arizona, works with parents and schools to create Safest Routes to School Maps. The maps are used to show parents and students the recommended walking routes and crossing locations for students living within the walking attendance boundary. The maps help city officials identify priorities for sidewalk repair. If the missing sidewalk has been included in a walking path on the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) walking plan, the city builds the missing segments. Through this process, several miles of missing sidewalk segments have been built.” I would like to see Oak Ridgers create “safest route to school” maps to help parents and kids, inject some reality into the school system’s walk zone lists, and help identify and prioritize needed improvements to sidewalks and intersections, at the same time that we start to implement the many additional excellent suggestions that are being compiled by residents and city officials.

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4 Comments

  1. […] Ellen Smith: At this special time of the year, I can only imagine the feelings of the family of Ashley Paine. My […]

  2. Trina says:

    The long-term goal of making the city more “walkable & bikable” will benefit not only school children, but pedestrians alike. It is one of the many different solutions necessary to better ensure the safety of our school children. However, I maintain that equal opportunity transportation for all will provide the greatest benefit in reducing the risks of danger our kids are facing daily. Further, with the myriad of sporting opportunities found in this town, our children do not lack the resources to achieve physical fitness.

    Trina

  3. Ellen Smith says:

    Thanks for the reminder about the need for near-term safety, Trina.

  4. Harry says:

    You have some good points but I agree with Trina that ALL school children should have the right to ride the school bus. The school director and school board remain in denial on this and are wrong, wrong, wrong.

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