Children from a local day care in Woodside, Queens at a press conference calling for safety measures on Queens Boulevard.

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and…Road Safety?

Motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death for school kids- so why not teach traffic safety in schools?

In a city of walkers and mass transit users, it’s no surprise that three-quarters of the 181 children killed between 2002 and 2011 were pedestrians. A leading cause of child injury death according to a New York City Department of Health report released in May, is motor vehicle related.

But despite this grim statistic, the city’s schools are doing little to teach children the basics of pedestrian safety. The Mayor’s Vision Zero initiative to reduce traffic fatalities partners with the NYPD, Department of Health, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission, but not the Department of Education.

To be sure, there are many factors involved: Driver distraction is a main contributor to motor vehicle injury; But pedestrian behavior such as crossing against a light, crossing midblock, and emerging between parked cars are also cited as causes of many incidents.

And schools are a logical place to start the process of reducing these behaviors. The DOE serves over a million school kids and the deadliest times of day coincide with school arrival and dismissal.

The job of educating school children about street safety has mostly fallen to the department of transportation. Safe Streets curricula have been created for every grade level, and parents too, and the DOT visited over 700 schools in 2014, according to the agency. But that is still less than half of over 1,800 public schools. An additional program, Safety City, which provides 3rd graders citywide with hands-on bike, car, and pedestrian training, is now only in Manhattan & Staten Island, making it inaccessible to most.

Protecting and responding to incidents falls to the NYPD, whose officers are required to attend school safety plan meetings quarterly though attendance and the regularity of such meetings only spikes after an incident. According to the report, “Each year about 11 children and nine youth die from MV-related incidents, and approximately 830 youth are hospitalized.”

Each school year, children are injured in their school zones, even on sidewalks. In 2014, an 8-year-old was killed and nine bystanders injured outside P.S. 307 in the Bronx by a car backing into the sidewalk at dismissal. In 2013, five students were seriously injured when a driver drove onto the sidewalk in Maspeth, Queens. Currently, there are no laws penalizing drivers for injuring kids in a school zone, such as ones protecting construction and highway workers for ‘intrusion into a work zone’.

Many feel that the safety concerns could be addressed by school crossing guards, who fall under the jurisdiction of the NYPD. The 2016 fiscal budget requests a 10% increase in crossing guard positions, but that would still leave 96 vacancies out of the 2,227 current positions. The total number of schools reaches 2,600 when private schools are counted, and enrollment in afterschool and Universal Pre-Kindergarten programs isn’t counted.

Staffing a specific location is uncertain: “While most members have an assigned post, the NYPD determines how long they can work and where to be positioned. They also can change their location at any time”, said a representative of Local 372, the union for school workers, who was not authorized to speak publically.

The failure to educate the city’s young pedestrians takes a particular toll on black, non-Hispanic boys living in high poverty neighborhoods. According to the report, they bare the brunt of all unintentional fatalities.

These neighborhoods most likely host Title 1 schools, which have a federal designation mandating financial assistance to local agencies and schools with a high number of poor families. A key caveat is that the funds support afterschool and summer programs, including collaboration with community organizations. Organizations such as Safe Kids USA do school safety programming, but not often enough. Joan Bush, Queens Safe Kids Coordinator and one acknowledged in the report said, “We mainly focus on schools where there has been a fatality,” Bush said.

Title 1 funds are also allocated to parent-involvement activities. Safety awareness, newsletters and workshops qualify.

Perhaps the biggest advocate for these changes is high school teacher Sofia Russo. Her four-year-old daughter Ariel, was killed by a teen driver in June 2013, as she walked from Pre-K with her grandmother.

“Our New York City students need to be comprehensively educated on traffic safety as both drivers and pedestrians;” Russo said, “whether they are small children walking to school like my daughter or new drivers like my students, safer streets needs to be the main goal for all of our children”.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Cristina Furlong’s story.