Going back to school this year will look very different for most children, and the families of children who will again be attending school in-person should make traffic safety a priority, said a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service safety expert.
According to the Texas Department of Transportation, in 2019 there were 765 traffic crashes in Texas school zones, resulting in one death and 15 serious injuries. The most common causes for these crashes were failure to control speed, driver inattention and failure to yield the right of way when turning left onto a private drive or at a stop sign.
“Whether it’s riding on a school bus, walking, peddling a bike or using a skateboard or scooter, it’s important children know of any potential traffic safety hazards,” said Bev Kellner, AgriLife Extension program manager, College Station.
Kellner said while kids get some safety rules and advice from school administrators, teachers, bus drivers and others, parents and other close caregivers should be the primary and most dependable sources for traffic and pedestrian safety information for children returning to school.
Motorists should be extra vigilant
“Children can be impulsive, so be extra vigilant around child pedestrians, bicyclists, skateboarders and others in school zones and residential neighborhoods,” Kellner said. “Watch for bikes or skateboarders coming from driveways or behind parked cars and be sure to check your side mirrors before you open the car door.”
She provided the following tips for safe driving in school zones:
- Stay alert and put your phone away. Using a handheld electronic device while driving in an active school zone is against the law.
- Always obey school zone speed limit signs.
- Drop off and pick up your children in your school’s designated areas, not the middle of the street.
- Keep an eye on children gathered at bus stops.
- Watch for children who might dart across the street or between vehicles.
School bus safety etiquette
Kellner said while school buses are usually a safe way for children to travel to and from school, there are still risks when boarding or exiting those buses.
“It is important that children wait on the sidewalk and line up away from the street as the bus approaches,” she said. “Of course, these days they may need to wear a mask and practice social distancing outside and inside the bus.”
She said children should not approach the bus until it makes a complete stop.
“Buckle up if seat belts are available, stay in place for the entire ride and use the handrail when exiting the bus,” she said.
Kellner also said if it’s necessary for a child to cross in front of a school bus, to make sure it’s from at least 10 feet away and the child and bus driver see each other.
“Teach children to wait until the bus driver signals that it is safe to cross and look for oncoming traffic,” she said.
Kellner also had tips on how motorists can better share the road with school buses, including:
- Follow the bus at a safe distance, keeping in mind it will make frequent stops.
- Stop for flashing red lights or a stop sign on a school bus, regardless of which direction you’re headed.
- Yield to children and other pedestrians in crosswalks and take extra care in school zones.
- Never pass a vehicle already stopped for a school bus.
- Never pass a school bus that’s loading or unloading children.
- Do not block the crosswalk when stopped at a red light or waiting to make a turn.
- In a school zone, stop and yield to pedestrians crossing in the crosswalk or at intersections, and always stop for a school patrol officer or crossing guard.
Advice/guidance to give children walking to school
Kellner suggested parents or other caregivers practice walking to school with their children and showing them where and when to cross streets.
“Children walking to school should be taught to use the sidewalk if there is one, but otherwise should learn to walk close to the curb where they would be facing oncoming traffic,” Kellner said.
Other advice Kellner gave for young pedestrians included:
- Cross the street at intersections or marked crosswalks. Look left, right, and left again before proceeding.
- Always obey crossing guards.
- Make eye contact with drivers before crossing the street. Never assume a driver sees you.
- Look for traffic when stepping off a bus or from behind parked cars.
- Don’t run out in front of a parked car.
She also noted motorists should also be mindful of children in school zones, near playgrounds and parks, and in residential areas, she said.
“Don’t honk or rev your engine to scare a pedestrian, even if you have the right of way, and don’t ever pass a vehicle already stopped for pedestrians,” she said. “Always use extreme caution to avoid hitting a pedestrian — no matter who has the right of way.”
Advice about bicyclists, skateboarders, scooter riders
Kellner said the most common cause of vehicle/bicyclist collision is a driver turning left in front of a bicyclist.
“When passing a bicyclist, proceed in the same direction slowly and leave at least 3 feet between your car and the cyclist,” she said. “When turning left and a bicyclist is approaching in the opposite direction, wait for the rider to pass. If you’re turning right and a bicyclist is approaching from behind on the right, let him or her go through the intersection first.”
Kellner also said motorists should be aware that children riding bikes or on scooters or skateboards may suddenly turn in front of them without looking or signaling, so they should give them extra space if following behind.
Kellner said bike riders, skateboarders or other “children on wheels” should always wear properly sized, secured helmets and wear brightly colored clothing.
“Children should pay attention to lane markers and ride single file on the right side of the road,” she said. “Come to a complete stop before crossing the street and then walk the bike across the street. Obey stop signs and traffic lights when riding a bike and don’t get too close to car doors as these may open suddenly. Ride near the curb in the same direction as the traffic and use hand signals to indicate where you’re turning. Follow all traffic rules, signs and signals.”
Kellner noted young pedestrians and those on bikes, skateboards or scooters should also avoid using headphones or electronic devices that could distract them or make it difficult to hear or see what’s happening around them.
Advice for new drivers
Kellner also noted many of the young people returning to school will be new drivers.
“Teen drivers typically have more crashes than most other drivers due to inexperience,” she explained. “They often struggle with how to handle judging gaps in traffic, driving the right speed for specific road conditions and how to avoid distractions, especially if there are others in the vehicle.”
Kellner said teen drivers should be especially aware of their surroundings and should drive cautiously and defensively.
“Avoid speeding, especially in school zones, and avoid distractions such as using the phone or eating while driving,” she said. “Your slower speed and extra attention may very well save a life.”