School zone safety in the age of distractions

(BPT) – Every school year, busy parents tack on more daily chores to their to-do lists. In addition to packing lunches and getting kids dressed, they also have to make sure last night’s homework was completed. For many families, the morning routine also means getting everyone in the car and on the road in time so the kids aren’t late to class and parents aren’t late for work. With all this chaos it’s no wonder the morning’s mad scramble extends to the school gates, with traffic snarling and tempers flaring as people jockey for position at drop-off area.

“Stressed out and distracted drivers mixing with crowds of school kids can be a recipe for disaster,” says James Fults, vice president, personal insurance auto for Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. “School zones can be difficult to navigate for drivers, many of whom are running late, might be receiving important work emails or calls on their smart phones, and trying to have last-minute conversations with their kids before they dash off for the day.”

In fact, as many as one in six drivers in school zones were reported as distracted in a 2009 national study of driving behavior around middle schools. The study was conducted in 15 states by the Safe Routes to School organization, which works to increase safety and reduce traffic around schools. Cell phones and electronics were identified as the leading distractors, followed by eating, drinking and smoking. Other distractions included reaching and looking behind the driver’s seat, grooming and even reading.

Drivers of larger vehicles like sports utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans were more distracted than car drivers, according to the study, and distracted drivers appeared more frequently in school zones without flashing lights and in school zones that had a daily traffic volume of 10,000 or more cars.

Sometimes these distractions have tragic results. Since 2003, 1,353 people have died in school-transportation-related accidents – an average of 135 fatalities per year – and more school-age pedestrians have been killed during drop-off and pick-up (from 7 to 8 a.m. and from 3 to 4 p.m.) than any other times of day, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

“Remember that your kids are learning from your driving example; don’t teach them to be a distracted driver,” Fults says. “To ensure that everyone makes it home safely at the end of the day, drivers should concentrate on the task at hand and exercise patience and caution when getting into and out of school zones.”

This is especially important since there are so many pedestrians in and around schools. In 2012, 4,743 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in the United States, and another 76,000 pedestrians were injured, according to the NHTSA. In that year, more than one in every five children between the ages of 5 and 15 who were killed in traffic crashes were pedestrians.

In order to be as safe as possible on the way to and from school, drivers should heed these tips:

* Be hyper-alert for children walking or bicycling to school.

* Slow down and always obey posted school-zone speed limits.

* Remember, children do not easily estimate vehicle speeds and often misjudge when it is safe to cross the street.

* Learn and obey the school bus laws in your state.

* Don’t use cell phones or mobile devices, including hands-free devices.

* Don’t eat, read, drink or groom in the car.

* Don’t tailgate or honk your horn.

* Don’t yell, glare or gesture to other drivers, pedestrians or cyclists.

* Try to be on time. Running late increases your chances of speeding and reckless driving.

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