In the days after learning of the death of a five-year-old girl who was pinned between two cars outside her school, principal Adalgisio Joe Bria was moved to action.
Within two weeks, he sent at least three traffic safety e-mails to families at All Saints Catholic School in the city's west end, reminding them that three-point turns were not permitted in the parking lot, and asking them to respect the speed limit, not to outmanoeuvre or block school buses and to drop children off in the appropriate areas.
The communication comes as Mr. Bria and educators in many parts of the city are growing increasingly worried about the number of distracted drivers dropping off and picking up their children from schools. Those concerns were heightened after Camila Torcato, a senior-kindergarten student at St. Raphael Catholic School in North York, died in hospital last month after being pinned by an SUV in her school's drop-off area. She was about to climb into her family's minivan when an unoccupied vehicle rolled into the little girl and her father, pinning them both against their car. (Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash said last week that the investigation is continuing).
"I thought of my own kids. We need to do our very best to keep all of our children safe," Mr. Bria said. "Accidents happen in the blink of an eye and I think it has forced us to go back and take a look at our practises, to make sure that we're doing the best we possibly can. Regrettably, it could happen anywhere."
The number of children being driven to school in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas has more than doubled in 25 years, according to a recent study by the regional transit agency Metrolinx that used data from a travel survey conducted every five years. In 2011, almost 31 per cent of children 11 to 13 years old were being driven to school, up from 12 per cent in 1986 – a challenge for school staff who are forced to spend part of their mornings acting as traffic cops.
The issue, some educators say, is that schools especially in Toronto are located in densely populated neighbourhoods where residents park on the street. Parents are left to jostle for a spot at drop-off time. In Halton, west of Toronto, newly built schools have drop-off loops for parents and school bus zones are separated from the parent drop-off areas.
At Mr. Bria's school, which has about 900 students, driving offences were common, including parents having their children run across the parking lot into the building. He created a new drop zone in recent weeks, where cars drive around a loop and pull up in front of the buses. School staff, including Mr. Bria, open the vehicle's back doors to let the children out onto the sidewalk that borders the school, the car doors are shut and parents drive off without having to leave the driver's seat.
"The system has worked quite well," Mr. Bria said. "Now, when you have someone go rogue and then they try to make a three-point turn to circumvent the loop, because they see that everything is jammed up, that's when things go askew."
Studies has shown that walking to school not only has physical benefits, it has also been associated with improved academic performance and socialization. For many parents, though, driving is the more convenient option as they scramble to get their children out the door and then get themselves to work.
But the rush can be unsafe, according to researchers at York University and the Hospital for Sick Children, who documented dangerous driving that occurs during morning drop-offs, and found that it put children at a higher risk of getting hit.
Over a 12-year period, 411 children in the areas studied were hit by a car near schools, and of those, 45 were during drop-off times. Of those, 29 children – or 64 per cent – were taken to the hospital, the study found.
"I understand parents are busy. It's a very hectic time of the day. But sometimes, I think people are so wrapped up in their own concerns about getting their child to school in their cars that they forget there's a whole school environment and a lot of children who are walking," said Alison Macpherson, one of the researchers and a professor in the school of kinesiology and health science at York University.
School staff say that common dangerous driving habits include parents doing U-turns in front of a school in the mornings or dropping children off on the opposite side of the school and allowing them to cross the street on their own.
As part of a back-to-school campaign, parking enforcement in Toronto issued 333 tickets in relation to parking violations in school zones this past September, up from 218 the previous year. As well, Toronto Police issued 2,560 tickets around schools for provincial offences that included speeding, careless driving and not obeying rules around crosswalks.
Prof. Macpherson said the problem can be managed: "Walk your children. If you have to drive, stop a few blocks away and walk your child to school."
At Allenby Junior Public School, near Avenue Road and Eglinton Avenue West, the number of accidents near the school pushed the principal and the parents council to become proactive around morning drop-offs. (No child was injured in these accidents.) They want to keep cars moving along the busy side streets. In recent years, they have painted the edges of the sidewalks that border the school to indicate drop zones. Volunteers and staff are on hand to help children out of cars and onto the school playground before parents drive off.
Heather Lingard said it is more convenient to drive her daughter to school, because mornings are usually rushed, and the walk could take as long as 30 minutes. The drop zones have improved gridlock on the narrow side streets that border the school, she said.
"When it works, it's seamless. I'm in and off that street in like two minutes," Ms. Lingard said.
On a recent Monday morning, principal Tracey O'Toole stood along the sidewalk on Castlefield Avenue, opening car doors and helping children onto school grounds. She said that she and the parents council have been successful in pressing the city to change the signage so that drivers don't park in the drop zones.
The city has also changed the sign on Castlefield that leads to Avenue Road, which serves as a north-south route connecting to downtown. There were a number of accidents as vehicles tried to go straight or turn left onto Avenue Road, Ms. O'Toole said. No children were hurt walking to school at the time, but Ms. O'Toole said she always feared the worst. Now drivers can only turn right and go south off that street.
"I always say my number one job is the safety of students. My number two job is teaching and learning," Ms. O'Toole said. "The safety of students doesn't just exist within the walls of the building; it exists on their entire way to and from school."