Rules of the Road

School’s back in session, and there’s plenty we all need to relearn about safe driving

With school back in session, many of us have had to relearn how to drive through school zones.
With school back in session, many of us have had to relearn how to drive through school zones. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

I’ve been hearing from folks who, as the school year starts up again, have not so much a question as a common request: “Can you please remind people to drive safe, especially around schools?” Of course I can.

As requested: Hey drivers, be safe on the road, and watch out for the kids.

I’d also like to go a couple steps further by expanding our concept of “kids” and why this time of year is extra risky for drivers.

We’ll start with the risk factors. With school back in session, many of us have had to relearn how to drive through school zones. After a couple months of kid-free streets, it’s easy to forget that on school days the sidewalks, crosswalks and sometimes the roads can be teeming with students. And kids’ brains being not yet fully developed, they can be an unpredictable bunch.

That’s part one of our increased risk situation. Now subtract some daylight so that dusk occurs during evening school events or as kids are returning from after-school activities. The still-light sky doesn’t allow our eyes to adjust to the dark roadway, and we have unpredictable mini-pedestrians out and about.

Next, add some first-of-the-season rainstorms. We know that rain impairs visibility and traction, but the first rain of the season is worse; the oil and dirt that has built up over the summer months acts like tiny ball bearings on the road surface, more than doubling stopping distance compared to dry pavement.

All those ingredients add up to a risky driving recipe.

If you’re like me, when the topic is safe driving and kids in school, I mentally create an image of elementary school kids darting across the street to the front door of the school without looking both ways.

But that’s an incomplete picture. In addition to the young kids, we have high school students who are first time drivers. During the summer, these inexperienced drivers are spread out across our community, but when school starts they all drive to the same parking lot.

Does it make you nervous when you drive by a high school at 3 p.m. and realize that nearly every car coming out of the campus parking lot has a driver in it with less than 24 months of driving experience? It should.

At the college level, students have a bit more driving experience, but many of them are unfamiliar with the area, having moved to Bellingham just for school. For many students, this is also their first exposure to nearly unlimited freedom, which may include consuming mind-altering substances.

Even if college students don’t drive after drinking, as pedestrians they increase the risk to themselves and to drivers. In fact, about one-third of pedestrian fatalities in Washington involve a pedestrian that was impaired by alcohol or drugs.

That’s a lot to think about while driving, so I’d like to offer a few resources to help out. If your concern focuses on young children walking to school, take a look at School Smart Trips. This program provides bicycle safety training in local schools.

Also, check out your school’s Safe Walk Plan to find the best route for your young student.

If you have a new driver in your household, take an active role in making sure your student has all the driving skills necessary before releasing him or her onto the public roads.

Consider using a parent-teen driving contract as a way to clearly spell out, in advance, your expectations for your new driver. Your insurance company may even have a contract you can use. If not, they are easy to find online.

For those of you in college, take advantage of the transportation alternatives just for students. Western Washington University has a late-night shuttle that runs between downtown and campus. WTA has free bus passes for students. (They’re not exactly free; you’ve already paid for it in your university fees so you might as well use it.)

For the next month ,Uber is offering half price rides to and from campus (limited to Thursday through Saturday evenings). And if your destination requires a car, WWU has discounted Zipcar memberships and cars available on campus, which is probably safer than taking your roommate’s 1994 Buick Skylark with bald tires and grinding brakes.

Add to that a campus rideshare program and there’s no reason to get into an unsafe car or go anywhere with an unsafe driver.

If you’ve driven through a school zone in the last couple weeks, you’ve probably seen some extra patrol cars reinforcing the speed limit. Coming this week, to coincide with the start of fall quarter at WWU, local law enforcement will be focusing on speeding vehicles around the university.

Student or not, this would be a good time to work on those safe driving skills and apply them as we encounter young pedestrians, new drivers and poor weather conditions.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.

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