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road sage

Cast your mind back. Way back. Take yourself on a journey through time to the distant days of early September 2022. The Canadian media was worried about traffic in school zones. Why weren’t Canadian kids walking to school? Why were parents driving so dangerously when they dropped off their littles ones? There were many stories in print, on screen and on the radio. This newspaper published an editorial.

Everyone agreed that children should walk to school whenever possible. Everyone was dismayed and vowed to do better. Hands were wrung. Promises were made. Then, like so many healthy lunchtime snacks, they were tossed into the garbage.

Today the NASCAR races known as the “morning drop-off” and “after-school pick-up” continue. It may come as a surprise, but school zones are always a traffic nightmare, not just during the first week of school.

In Vancouver a “novice” driver was caught going 90 kilometres per hour in a school zone. In Kelowna, a school bus driver (with students on board) was caught speeding through a school zone. A recent survey by the British Columbia Automobile Association found that, “74 per cent of drivers surveyed don’t know how to tell when a school zone ends, 69 per cent are confused about stopping in school zones, and 42 per cent don’t know the speed limit when school is not in session.”

This kind of behaviour is not a west coast phenomenon. In Gatineau, Que., a back-to-school safety blitz resulted in 188 tickets. Police in Grand Prairie, Alta., gave out 126 in a similar operation. A driver in Peterborough, Ont. received a $583 fine for a school zone infraction. Durham police, east of Toronto, issued 1,343 tickets during their school safety blitz. A recent survey by Canadian Automobile Association South Central Ontario found that just 37 per cent of parents consider the roads around their child’s school safe. Seventy-eight per cent had witnessed dangerous driving near their schools.

And so it goes. Stories and statistics demonstrating that many drivers treat school zones like combat zones.

And now we are entering one of most dangerous months for driving. In autumn, the sun is lower in the sky resulting in a blinding gleam on the windshield that obstructs the view of traffic lights, pedestrians, cyclists and, more specifically, children walking to and from school. What could go wrong?

Some critics blame the parents. “Just open the door and set your offspring out into the great wide world,” those who walked to school in the 1960s, 70s and 80s argue. “Everyone did.” That’s the point. There was safety in numbers. I walked to elementary school back when the Brothers Gibb ruled the radio, and the only danger was other kids beating the snot of out me - which they did (readers may find it hard to believe, but I was an obnoxious child). It feels good to blame parents and it seems like an easy fix.

Times, however, have changed. Some kids go to schools that aren’t in walking distance. Parents work. The more parents drove their kids to school the more parents became afraid of cars, which, ironically, led them to drive their kids to school. I’d argue that it’s not our place to lecture parents who spent the pandemic trying to get six-year-olds to embrace online learning about the virtues of taking the shoelace express. Every generation has its challenges.

Besides, if children are the future, then school-zone safety is not just a problem for parents, but for society at large. We all must strive to fix the problem.

Some solutions can be found in grassroots initiatives such as the Walking School Bus. The concept is simple and will remind grey hairs of what was once called “going to school.” One or more adults walk a number of students to school. According to the group, “that’s part of the beauty of the walking school bus. It can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school to as structured as a route with meeting points, a timetable and a regularly rotated schedule of trained volunteers.”

What’s really missing is any meaningful action from our political leadership. It would be nice if they paid attention to this problem for more than the first week of September. I know it sounds ridiculous, but why can’t Canadian leaders do something radical? In New Zealand, the government is putting forward drastic changes with the Reshaping Streets plan that includes allowing road-controlling authorities to establish “School Streets” where automobiles would be banned outside schools during drop-off and pick-up times.

And it would be good if the media didn’t treat the issue like a seasonal allergy. I include myself in this shabby group. But don’t hold your breath. As an editor at the long extinct eye WEEKLY once quipped, “Today is the one-year anniversary of whatever happened a year ago today.”

Mark it in your calendars Canada. Only eleven more months until the media’s next round of “What Will We do about the School Zone Drop Off” articles.