The November issue of SP&M is always a special one that focuses on making our schools safer places for kids. The concern about ‘school safety’ conjures up images of terrorism and homicides, theft and vandalism, drug and alcohol use, and bullying. Reports show that students age 12 to 18 were victims of about two million nonfatal crimes of violence or theft at school in 2001. The data on homicides and suicides at school show there were 32 school-associated violent deaths in the United States between July 1, 1999 and June 30, 2000, including 24 homicides — 16 of which involved school-aged children. To combat these problems, schools and communities are devising safety plans and installing safety technologies, but what are we doing to make the trip to school safer?

According to Transportation Research Board Special Report 269, The Relative Risks of School Travel: A National Perspective and Guidance for Local Community Risk Assessment,“each year approximately 800 school-aged children are killed in motor vehicle crashes during normal school travel hours. This figure represents about 14 percent of the 5,600 child deaths that occur annually on U.S. roadways and two percent of the nation’s yearly total of 40,000 motor vehicle deaths. Of these 800 deaths, about 20 (two percent) — five school bus passengers and 15 pedestrians — are school bus related. The other 98 percent of school-aged deaths occur in passenger vehicles or to pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists. A disproportionate share of these passenger vehicle-related deaths (approximately 450 of the 800 deaths or 55 percent) occur when a teenager is driving. At the same time, approximately 152,000 school-age children are nonfatally injured during normal school travel hours each year. More than 80 percent (about 130,000) of these nonfatal injuries occur in passenger vehicles; only four percent (about 6,000) are school bus related (about 5,500 school bus passengers and 500 school bus pedestrians), 11 percent (about 16,500) occur to pedestrians and bicyclists, and fewer than one percent (500) are to passengers in other buses.”

There are many modes of transportation used by students in their daily trek to and from school ranging from walking or biking, to a ride from mom/dad, to public transportation or the yellow school bus. For many high school students, the method of choice is their own car. Many factors play a part when determining safety/risk including the mode of transportation, the use of safety equipment, infrastructure design and student behavior. When looking just at mode of transportation and calculating the risk, traveling to school or school-related activities by school bus, public transportation and passenger vehicles with adult drivers have injury estimates and fatality counts below those expected, based on exposure to risk as implied by the number of trips taken and student miles traveled. On the other hand, passenger vehicles with teen drivers, bicycling and walking have estimated injury rates and fatality counts disproportionate to exposure.

While they can’t control the highways, districts can change their policies regarding student driving privileges by limiting available parking or closing the campus during school hours, thereby eliminating carloads of kids going off campus for lunch. Modifications could also be made to minimum walking distance, especially in cases were there is not adequate infrastructure for walking or biking. Early and late buses could be made available for students participating in after school activities. Working with the community and local government agencies, schools can make access to the site safer, ensuring that sites are marked with signage that designates school zones and crossings zones, keeping off-site sidewalks maintained and installing stop signs or red lights where necessary.

Good site design can reduce situations in which motor vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists conflict with one another. Student loading areas should be segregated from traffic and pedestrian walkways. Buses and parent parking should be kept separate, mixing types of traffic can cause confusion and accidents. Traffic should be one way with clearly marked entrances and exits. Adequate sidewalks and crosswalks should be provided for students, employees and visitors to the school building, the playgrounds and the athletic fields. Driveways and parent parking should be near the main entrance and administration offices, as well as the auditorium, cafeteria and athletic fields. Playgrounds for elementary students should be kept separate from parking lots and traffic area.

Like many other things in school, it all comes down to resources. Are there funds available to purchase a site large enough to adequately handle traffic? Are there funds available to maintain the walkways, bike paths and crosswalks? Are there funds available to offer early and late bus services? When 800 school-aged children are killed and 152,000 are nonfatally injured traveling back and forth to school each year, can we afford to blame it on lack of funds?