DANGEROUS CROSSINGS: Children face perilous journey to school

DANGEROUS CROSSINGS: Children face perilous journey to school

Michele Ellson

Alameda Police logged three dozen accidents at or near Alameda schools between 2010 to 2012. Source: Alameda Police Department.

Heather Little is a traveler who has walked on the edge of volcanoes with her two young children, where the drop is 350 feet down. But she never felt so close to losing her son, she said, as on the day a motorist nearly hit the then-kindergartner in the crosswalk he was riding his bicycle into on the way to school.

Little said she saw a white pickup driving “really fast” as she and her children entered the crosswalk on Encinal Avenue that would deposit them at the back entrance of Franklin Elementary School, where the school’s crossing guard had blown his whistle, walked into the road and motioned for the family to cross. So she began screaming for her son to wait.

The driver blew through the crosswalk, missing her son’s front bicycle tire by a few inches, she said.

“If I hadn’t been there, Finn would have been plowed over,” she said.

Little’s experience may have been a frightening one, but it is not an uncommon one for families who walk or bike to school in Alameda. Parents and principals at a half-dozen Island schools who were interviewed for this story offered a litany of similar tales about children who barely escaped tragedy on their journey to school – and about some who did not.

Many students’ daily walk or ride to school sees them traversing major streets where drivers routinely roll through crosswalks without stopping for children or for crossing guards who are telling them to wait. Parents often add to the peril by double-parking in driving lanes near schools and jaywalking in traffic on busy streets.

Incidents like the one Little detailed often prompt requests for better traffic enforcement around schools. But police said that while they try to be responsive, the department doesn’t have enough officers to provide comprehensive enforcement at Alameda’s schools. And efforts to install new crosswalks or other improvements to make Alameda’s streets safer for children can sometimes take years, as the city competes for limited funding and proponents battle reluctant neighbors.

Parents and school principals said their requests for more enforcement are met with the suggestion that they take it on themselves to make the trip to school safer, a call some schools have taken up and others where parent assistance is chronically short have found challenging. Parents at several schools said police told them to get the license plate numbers of traffic scofflaws to forward to the department.

“I put that out to parents,” said Maya Lin School principal Judy Goodwin whose school has had problems with commuters trying to beat the light at Eighth Street and Santa Clara Avenue on their way to the Posey Tube. “It's really hard to get that information when a car is going by quickly and you're trying to get out of the way.”

Little said she was too distraught to capture the license plate of the driver, who backed up after stopping 15 feet past the crosswalk and then, sped off.

Photos by Donna Eyestone.

Community ripe for walking, cycling

Alameda is a community that prides itself on its neighborhood schools, which – along with its flat topography – offer a unique opportunity for families to get out of their cars to walk or bike to school. Walking and bicycling are actively promoted by parents and educators at schools and by Alameda County, which has a robust program aimed at getting more kids to walk and bike to school.

Walking and biking to school offers several well-documented advantages over driving, said Tess Lengyel of the Alameda County Transportation Commission, which runs the county’s Safe Routes to School program. In addition to getting cars off the road – which itself makes the walk to school safer – getting a little exercise in before school helps children focus, she said.

“It’s a healthy way for children to get to school,” Lengyel said.

Unfortunately, it can also be a dangerous way to get to school. Between 2010 and 2012, police documented three-dozen pedestrian and bicycle accidents near schools, though some of those were logged long after school hours or during summer months. Even so, parents The Alamedan interviewed for this story offered dozens of tales of near misses and students being hit by drivers.

“My favorite moment was when a car pulled a U-turn in the crosswalk when we and other families/kids were actually crossing. Then the driver yelled out the window ‘What're you looking at?’ and did the cuckoo-sign of a twirled finger next to his head!” said Jane Grimaldi, who has children at Lum Elementary and Wood Middle schools and who called her walk to Wood “an adventure of the scariest sort.”

Parents and school principals said that on the walk to school, families routinely encounter drivers who speed, run lights, or are simply blinded by the sun as they traverse the Island’s major east-west arterials. Crossing guards are scarce, limited to one or two at each of the Island’s elementary schools; students at Alameda’s middle and high schools are left to fend for themselves.

Matt Huxley, principal of the Academy of Alameda middle school charter, said he’s looking into hiring a guard to staff the crosswalk in front of the school, through which students must traverse a tangle of merging streets that he said are confusing for drivers and have been the site of several near-misses and some accidents. His previous middle school had a crossing guard who helped students cross safely, and even then, he said, there was trouble with kids and cars.

“I come from a community where that was something the city did, the district paid in, and it was a shared expense. We don’t have an official crosswalk person,” Huxley said.

But even the guards – who are armed with a whistle, a handheld stop sign and a reflective vest – sometimes find that they are ignored by drivers who speed through crosswalks even as young children are entering them. Haight Elementary School parent Caroline Topeé, who started a petition seeking more enforcement and is trying to gather parent volunteers, said the school’s crossing guard told her people will drive through the intersection of Santa Clara Avenue and Chestnut Street – which has a four-way stop sign – without stopping.

“They just don’t care,” Topeé said. “Even with the guard, it’s tough. She’ll yell at them, but that’s all she can do.”

Still, some acknowledged that when it comes to being unsafe at school, parents and students are sometimes the worst offenders. Several people interviewed for this story said that parents often double park to drop off their children at schools that lack off-street drop-off areas, leading other drivers to perform unsafe maneuvers to pass, something The Alamedan observed during a visit to Haight Elementary and at other schools (see accompanying story). Older students, meanwhile, are sometimes distracted by phones and other digital devices as they cross streets without looking up to see if cars are coming.

Alameda Police Sergeant Ron Simmons, who manages the department’s traffic division, said that on a recent visit to Encinal High School, he saw teens striding into crosswalks without checking to see if cars were coming.

“It’s like they were oblivious to the vehicular traffic,” he said.

Traffic improvements tough

Making improvements that could make crossing streets safer is sometimes easier said than done. City transportation coordinator Gail Payne, who said the city works with community members to address safety issues as they crop up, said it took the city three tries to win a competitive state grant that will fund a mid-block crosswalk on Grand Street near Wood Middle School; parents first offered concerns about the safety of crossing Grand in 2006 (a crossing guard was put in place at Grand and San Jose Avenue as a result). And the city was forced to return grant money that was to be used to make a “five-legged” intersection on Gibbons Drive safer for pedestrians after neighbors complained.

Parents were unsuccessful in attempts to get a crosswalk at the intersection of Santa Clara and Sherman streets an intersection that’s shown on a city-generated map that’s supposed to show safe routes for pedestrians and cyclists to travel to school – until shortly after a child was almost hit this past fall while crossing the morning of International Walk & Roll to School Day.

“This was one of the closest incidents we have had, but truly every day at that corner feels like Russian Roulette to me, as cars go speeding by with no intention of either slowing or stopping for pedestrians,” parent Shay Phillips wrote in an e-mail to the school’s PTA co-president, Amy Garcia which both shared with a reporter. Phillips said the crosswalk, which was installed shortly after the e-mail was sent, has made the crossing safer.

Efforts to make safety improvements along Otis Drive that were prompted by concerns for students’ safety met with resistance from some neighbors who opposed a plan to remove a pair of lightly used crosswalks at Fountain and Court streets in order to direct pedestrians to cross at Mound Street, where bolder pavement markings and flashing lights are set to be installed. In letters and a petition, they said additional traffic enforcement should be conducted instead.

“We feel the Police Department needs to make a better effort during commute hours to ticket speeding vehicles on Otis, including those who race down Court and Bayview to avoid Otis,” residents wrote in a petition challenging the crosswalks’ removal.

Simmons said he asks his officers to be visible at schools on their beat during commute hours and that when they see drivers breaking the law they cite them, especially near schools. But he has far fewer officers on duty during commute hours than there are schools. And the traffic issues are everywhere, he said.

Simmons, who said a combination of enforcement, engineering and education are needed to make everyone safer, said he has just one motorcycle officer on duty during the morning commute time, and five to six paired up in police cars. If there’s a collision, that’s two to three officers gone, he said.

“At best, we have seven people in marked cars to do enforcement. And we don’t know what the day’s going to bring,” Simmons said.

He said he’s got another motorcycle officer coming on board next week, and is authorized to bring on two more. And the crossing guard program is due to add four guards to its current roster of 21 for intersections that had previously been covered.

“There is light at the end of this tunnel,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have limited staffing now.”

By and large, parents said city staff has been responsive to their concerns. In addition to the safety improvements near Otis and Franklin, they’ve made fixes to a “five-legged” intersection at Encinal High School, where at least one student was hit by a car during the first month of school this year. Payne said she thinks Alameda, where most streets have a posted 25-mile per hour speed limit, is ready to see more people getting out of their cars.

“We have a community that’s ripe to continue the growth of walking and bicycling to school,” Payne said. “It’s a matter of making spot improvements we’re wanting diligently to do as we progress.”

While some schools are struggling to collect enough volunteers to police fellow parents during drop-off, others have seen success with their efforts to make the walk or ride to school a safe one. Several Alameda schools are among the more than 90 county-wide that are active partners in the county’s Safe Routes program, which offers everything from materials and technical support for walking and rolling programs to puppet shows, bicycle safety workshops, walking audits and the BikeMobile, which handles repairs, Lengyel said.

Olivia Rebanal started a walking school bus in order to meet other families attending Otis Elementary School. But it also has helped to safely shepherd Rebanal’s third grader and some of her classmates across Otis Drive, which like most of Alameda’s streets has a posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour but where cars typically travel 33 miles an hour, according to a city staff report detailing proposed improvements there.

Rebanal said she tried a number of routes for her family’s five-block walk to school before finding a good one that sees the group crossing Otis Drive, which is a four-lane state highway, at the light on High Street. In setting up the walking school bus, she acquired handheld stop signs and bright vests to make the walk safer, she said.

“Me as a parent trying to cross Otis with my own kids, it’s unnerving. Unless you have a group, a system, it might not feel comfortable to cross in traffic,” Rebanal said.

But the walking school bus, which is led by a parent and usually picks up six to 10 children each day, is much more visible – and fun.

“They chit-chat on the way. At Christmas time, they sing Christmas carols,” Rebanal said.

Both Otis and Franklin have family volunteers who escort children out of cars in order to smooth traffic in front of the schools and cut down on double-parking. Like Otis, Lum has a similar walking school bus in place.

“It’s making a big difference,” Otis principal Shirley Clem said of the safety patrol, which she said is part of a multifaceted approach to safety that includes an annual bike rodeo and bicycle safety workshops.

Rebanal said Lincoln Middle School, where two-thirds of whose students either walk or bike to school, has a comprehensive program aimed at making those trips safer that includes walk and roll to school events overseen by students in the school’s leadership class and new courses on proper helmet usage that are being taught during physical education class.

“It has to do with kids and parents feeling safe,” Rebanal said of Lincoln’s high number of walking and cycling students. “Ultimately, if parents feel safe – they’re the decision maker, and they decide whether kids walk or roll to school.”

Little said her son’s near miss compelled her to be even more careful when crossing the street, and to make sure cars are actually stopping before she and her children go. She said that when she first moved to Alameda, she could walk into an intersection and traffic would stop. But when she returned after a five-year tour in Hawaii, she found that had changed.

“The whole reason why people live in Alameda is because of the collective sense of overall safety that you feel while living here,” she said. “I understand it’s not Mayberry, but there’s got to be a greater common courtesy given to people. Everyone needs to just take a second and slow down.”

Safety links

More information on pedestrian and bicycle safety can be found by clicking the following links:

Alameda County Safe Routes to School

Safe Routes to School maps